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Hacking your psychology to maintain healthy exercise habits

Date: 28-01-2022

Written by Samuel Peters BHSc (Naturopathy)

You set a New Year’s resolution on December 31 and by the end of January, you are struggling to maintain that early enthusiasm. What went wrong? For many of us, nothing went wrong; we just weren’t playing to the strengths of our psychology.
Research suggests that setting an open goal, rather than a specific one, can help us persevere in our new wellbeing and lifestyle resolutions.
This is somewhat at odds with the goal-setting theory adopted in the 1990’s, underpinning strategies such as setting a SMART goal (where SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound). However, when it comes to our exercise habits, evolving research suggests that specific goals (i.e walk 10,000 steps per day), can set us up for failure and put us off. This is because specific goals require that we have the appropriate knowledge, ability, commitment, feedback, and resources to achieve it. We might also feel a sense of failure and lose motivation if we hit an average of 9000 steps per day, when in reality, that should be a celebrated achievement. In some cases, the stress, pressure and anxiety of achieving specific goals can reduce both the likelihood of achieving your goals and enjoyment of the activity.
Instead, researchers suggest that creating open goals, which are non-specific and exploratory, can lead to better performance and can be more psychologically rewarding. Open goals are thought to be particularly beneficial for those in the early stages of building healthy exercise habits – which is often the case in many New Year’s resolutions.
Steps for setting an open goal:
1.       Think about what you want to improve (for example “increasing daily exercise”).
2.       Identify what you want to measure, such as your daily average step count.
3.       Phrase your goal in an open-ended, exploratory way: “I want to see how high I can get my average daily step count by the end of the year.”
And then get started!
With an open goal, you’re more likely to see progress and enjoy the experience. This makes it easier to stick with it in the long term.
When (and if) you are ready, experiment with setting and achieving specific goals – but first, find out if you are setting yourself up for success by establishing whether you have the knowledge, ability, commitment, opportunity for feedback, and resources to achieve it.

If you are interested in more tips for maintaining optimal health, you might like to read our blog Health is wealth: investing in long term health and wellbeing.



1. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17437199.2019.1706616

2. https://theconversation.com/want-to-exercise-more-try-setting-an-open-goal-for-your-new-years-resolution-149172