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The Power of Evidence-Based Goal Setting for Achieving Your Health and Fitness Goals

Every year, millions of people are setting new and ambitious nutrition or weight-related goals. But just how successful are people in sticking with their resolutions and more importantly, how can we increase the odds of success. This article aims to empower you with evidence-based goal-setting strategies to make your efforts count and last.


A closer look at New Year's Resolutions


The world’s largest experimental study on New Year’s resolutions with over 1000 participants in 2020 found that the most popular resolutions involve physical health, weight loss and change of eating habits (see graph below). The study was conducted over a year and follow-ups were made each month.


How you formulate your resolution is of great importance for the final outcome. If you rephrase your resolution from “I will quit/avoid” to “I will start to”, you will have a greater chance of reaching your goals.

In fact, resolutions phrased as so-called “approach goals”, starting something/adopting new habits, are more likely to be successful than resolutions about quitting/avoiding something, so-called “avoidance goals” (see graph below). We will discuss approach vs avoidance goals in more details later in this post.



One of the authors of the study concluded:


"New Year’s resolutions are important and have gotten an undeserved bad reputation when they might actually be an incentive to positive and important changes in people’s lives".- Per Carlbring

However, when we look at weight loss research, we can see that almost everything works in the short term, but very few things work in the long term.

Many of these interventions are quick fixes—interventions that are impractical, unsustainable, or simply insufficient for promoting a lasting change that facilitates successful long-term maintenance.

As a result, the research largely reflects what we see and experience in the real world: short-term weight loss and weight regain cycles are the norm, while sustained long-term weight loss is less commonly observed.

The reality is that sustained long-term weight loss is a challenge that requires a more evidence-based approach. In this blog post, we will explore the concept of behavior change and its role in achieving goals, as well as some strategies for making sustainable changes.

Whether you are making a fresh start this new year or seeking to revamp your current approach to health and wellness, this post will provide valuable insights for turning your short-term resolutions into a long-term lifestyle change.


From Resolution to Reality: Building a Strong Foundation for Long-Term Success


From Goals to Achievement: The Role of Behavior Change


Behavior change refers to the process of modifying one's actions or habits in order to achieve a desired outcome or goal. It involves making conscious, deliberate choices to adopt new behaviors or replace old ones with more positive or productive ones


Behavior change is important in achieving goals and long-term success because our behaviors and habits have a profound impact on our ability to achieve the outcomes we desire. Whether it's weight loss, career advancement, or improving our relationships, our behaviors and habits play a critical role in determining our success or failure.


By making changes to our behaviors and habits, we can increase our chances of success and achieve our goals more efficiently and effectively. For example, if we want to lose weight, we may need to change our eating habits or increase our physical activity. If we want to advance our careers, we may need to develop new skills or adopt new work habits.


The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change


The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change (TTM) is a theoretical framework for understanding behavior change that was developed by psychologists James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente in the 1980s. The model is based on the idea that behavior change is a process that occurs over time, with individuals moving through a series of stages as they progress towards sustained behavior change.


The TTM consists of five stages of change:


  1. Precontemplation: At this stage, individuals are not yet considering behavior change.

  2. Contemplation: At this stage, individuals are considering behavior change but have not yet taken action.

  3. Preparation: At this stage, individuals have decided to take action and are preparing to make behavior changes in the near future.

  4. Action: At this stage, individuals are actively making behavior changes.

  5. Maintenance: At this stage, individuals have successfully made behavior changes and are working to sustain those changes over time.


The TTM has been used in a wide range of health behavior change interventions, including smoking cessation, weight loss, and physical activity promotion. The model has been found to be effective in promoting behavior change, particularly when tailored to the specific needs and motivations of individual participants.

Ultimately, behavior change is about taking control of our lives and making intentional choices that support our goals and aspirations.


Shortcomings of traditional goal-setting models


Setting and achieving goals is a fundamental part of personal and professional development. However, traditional goal-setting approaches such as SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) goals have several limitations, including being too rigid and not accounting for individual differences and situational factors. SMART goals were designed to help managers keep their employees on task in a corporate setting, which is not a strong foundation for behavior change applications. In fact, you could justifiably suggest that applying the SMART goal framework was a bit counterproductive in a study on resolutioners who were mostly aiming to change health-related behaviors (rather than aiming to keep a corporation in the black).

So, rather than leaning on the old SMART acronym, we’ll now explore a number of evidence-based strategies to support New Year’s (or any other for that matter) resolutions by promoting successful behavior change and goal achievement.

Key Factors of Successful Goal Setting


Establishing a Goal Hierarchy


A lot of people recommend keeping goals small, manageable, and restricted to a very specific action or behavior. This is partially good advice, but might actually be a bit short-sighted in the long run. A more robust approach to goal setting involves establishing an entire goal network – a hierarchy of goals including superordinate, intermediate, and subordinate components.


Research by Höchli et al. (2019) found that individuals who established a goal hierarchy were more successful in achieving their goals than those who did not. By breaking down goals into smaller, achievable sub-goals, individuals were able to create a sense of progress and momentum, which increased motivation and confidence. This approach also allowed individuals to adjust their goals as needed, making the behavior change process more flexible and adaptable.


In addition to breaking down goals into sub-goals, Höchli et al. (2019) also recommended that individuals identify the values and motivations behind their goals. By understanding why a particular goal is important, individuals can connect with their goals on a deeper level and increase their commitment to behavior change.


Overall, establishing a goal hierarchy can be a useful strategy for achieving sustainable behavior change. By breaking down goals into smaller, achievable sub-goals and identifying the values and motivations behind them, individuals can create a sense of progress, increase motivation and confidence, and make the behavior change process more flexible and adaptable.




Let’s look at a practical scenario of how a goal hierarchy might look like.


Superordinate Goal: Be Healthy


Intermediate Goals:

  1. Reduce daily stress levels by practicing mindfulness meditation every day for the next 3 months.

  2. Improve overall nutrition by consuming at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day for the next 6 months.

  3. Improve cardiovascular health by walking for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for the next 9 months.

  4. Improve sleep quality by getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night for the next 12 months.

Subordinate Goals:

  1. Download a meditation app and set aside time every day for guided meditation.

  2. Plan meals in advance and keep healthy snacks on hand.

  3. Incorporate walking into the daily routine, such as taking a walk during lunch breaks or walking to nearby destinations.

  4. Develop a consistent bedtime routine and limit screen time before bed.


In this example, the superordinate goal is to be healthy. The intermediate goals break down this superordinate goal into achievable milestones, such as reducing stress, improving nutrition, improving cardiovascular health, and improving sleep quality. The subordinate goals break down the intermediate goals into specific action steps, such as downloading a meditation app, planning meals in advance, incorporating walking into the daily routine, and developing a consistent bedtime routine.


By establishing a goal hierarchy, the individual can prioritize their goals, allocate their time and resources effectively, and track their progress towards achieving their superordinate goal of being healthy.


Characteristics of Effective Goals


Approach Versus Avoidance


As already hinted to at the beginning of the post, approach-oriented goals, which focus on achieving a desired outcome, may be more effective than avoidance-oriented goals, which focus on avoiding an undesired outcome, according to a large-scale experiment on New Year's resolutions. The study involved more than 1,000 participants who were randomly assigned to set either an approach-oriented or avoidance-oriented goal related to their health and fitness.


The results showed that those with approach-oriented goals were more successful in achieving their goal and maintaining their progress over time than those with avoidance-oriented goals. This suggests that a positive and proactive mindset may be more effective in promoting sustainable behavior change than a negative and defensive one.


The distinction between “approach goals” and “avoidance goals” can be very effectively explained in terms of nutrition goals. For someone wishing to improve the quality of their diet, approach goals might include eating more vegetables and fruits or eating more protein. In contrast, avoidance goals might include eating less sweets or consuming fewer sugary drinks.


These findings have important implications for anyone looking to set and achieve goals, whether it's at the start of a new year or at any other time. Rather than focusing on what to avoid, it may be more effective to focus on what to achieve and approach the goal with a positive mindset. By setting approach-oriented goals, individuals may increase their chances of success and experience more satisfaction in the process.

Category

Approach

Avoidance

Nutrition

  • Eating more vegetables

  • Increasing water intake

  • Adding protein to meals

  • ​Eating fewer sweets

  • Drinking less soda

  • Avoiding fast food

Fitness

  • Taking stairs instead of elevator

  • Lifting weights 3 times per week

  • Practicing yoga

  • Not skipping workouts

  • Not being sedentary for long periods of time

  • Not overeating after workouts

Personal Development

  • Learning a new skill or language

  • Reading a book each month

  • Attending a seminar or conference

  • Not procrastinating

  • Not wasting time on social media

  • Not engaging in negative self-talk


Flexible Restraint Versus Rigid Restraint


Flexible restraint in the context of goal setting means setting boundaries and limitations while still allowing for some degree of autonomy and freedom to pursue one's goals. This approach recognizes that each person's goals and circumstances are unique, and allows for individualized approaches to goal setting.


On the other hand, a rigid restraint approach to goal setting typically involves strict rules and guidelines that must be followed in order to achieve success. This approach may not take into account the specific needs and circumstances of the individual, and can be demotivating if the person feels trapped or restricted in their pursuit of their goals.


The benefits of a flexible restraint approach to goal setting include:


  1. Increased motivation: When individuals have some degree of autonomy and control over their goal-setting process, they are more likely to feel motivated to work towards their goals.

  2. Improved goal attainment: Flexible restraint allows individuals to tailor their goals to their specific needs and circumstances, which can increase the likelihood of achieving them.

  3. Better mental health outcomes: A flexible restraint approach to goal setting can help individuals feel more in control of their lives, which can improve their mental health and well-being.


In the context if nutrition, flexible restraint can mean establishing a healthy energy balance, using a moderate calorie deficit during weight loss phases, emphasizing whole food sources over supplements, and adopting a flexible approach to nutrition that allows for occasional indulgences.


In summary, flexible restraint is a better approach to goal setting as it allows for personalized and tailored goal-setting strategies that can increase motivation, improve goal attainment, and enhance mental health outcomes.


Flexible

Rigid

  • Diverse food choices

  • Allowing occasional treats

  • Adapting to social situations

  • Categorizing food as good and bad

  • Skipping meals to save calories

  • Deviation from plan viewed as failure

Process Versus Outcome


Outcome goals focus on the end result or outcome that a person wants to achieve, such as winning a competition, getting a promotion, or losing weight. In contrast, process goals focus on the actions or processes that a person needs to engage in to achieve a particular outcome.

Research suggests that process goals are often more effective than outcome goals for several reasons:


  1. Process goals are more controllable: Process goals focus on behaviors that are under a person's control, such as exercising regularly, practicing a skill, or completing a task. In contrast, outcome goals are dependent on external factors, such as the performance of others, luck, or other circumstances outside of a person's control.

  2. Process goals increase motivation: Setting specific, measurable, and achievable process goals can increase a person's motivation and focus, as they can see the progress they are making towards their goal. In contrast, outcome goals can be discouraging if progress is slow or setbacks occur.

  3. Process goals promote learning and growth: Engaging in a process-oriented approach to goal setting can help individuals develop new skills, knowledge, and habits that can lead to long-term success. Outcome-oriented approaches, in contrast, may limit learning and growth if the outcome is the only focus.

  4. Process goals lead to better performance: Research has shown that focusing on process goals leads to better performance outcomes than focusing on outcome goals. This is because process goals help individuals develop the habits and behaviors needed to achieve the desired outcome.


Overall, while outcome goals can be helpful for providing direction and motivation, process goals are often more effective for achieving success in the long-term. By focusing on the process and the behaviors that lead to success, individuals can develop the habits, skills, and knowledge needed to achieve their goals and maintain success over time.


Process

Outcome

  • Perform 3 strength training sessions per week

  • Drink at least 8 glasses of water per day

  • Eat at least 4 servings of vegetables per day

  • Increase bench press weight by 10kg in 6 weeks

  • Fit into a size 6 dress by the end of the year

  • Lower body fat percentage to 20% in 3 months


Mastery Versus Performance


Mastery goals focus on developing competence and mastery of a particular skill or task, while performance goals focus on demonstrating competence by outperforming others or achieving a specific outcome.

Research suggests that mastery goals are often more beneficial than performance goals for several reasons:


  1. Focusing on mastery goals encourages individuals to adopt a growth mindset, which emphasizes learning, development, and continuous improvement (Elliot & Church, 1997). This mindset can lead to greater persistence, resilience, and adaptability in the face of challenges (Harackiewicz, Barron, & Elliot, 1998).

  2. Engaging in activities with a focus on mastery can be more enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding than those focused on performance, as individuals can focus on personal progress and achievement rather than external validation (Middleton & Midgley, 1997).

  3. Mastery goals are more under an individual's control than performance goals, as they are focused on personal development and growth. This can lead to greater confidence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic motivation (Dweck, 2000).

  4. Research has shown that individuals who focus on mastery goals tend to perform better over time than those who focus on performance goals. This is because mastery goals encourage individuals to engage in deliberate practice, seek feedback, and take risks in order to improve their skills and knowledge (Elliot & Dweck, 2005).

  5. Focusing on mastery goals can help individuals develop the habits, skills, and knowledge needed to achieve success in the long-term. By focusing on personal development and growth, individuals can build the foundation for sustained success and fulfillment (Ames, 1992).


Overall, while performance goals can provide motivation and direction, mastery goals are often more beneficial for promoting personal growth, intrinsic motivation, and long-term success. By focusing on developing competence and mastery of a particular skill or task, individuals can build the foundation for sustained success and fulfillment.


Setting Specific Goals


Now that we’ve covered the general characteristics of effective goals, it’s time to get specific on how to build your action plan. Enter implementation intentions.


Implementation Intentions


Implementation intentions are a specific type of planning that involve linking a particular situational cue to a specific action in order to achieve a desired outcome. In other words, implementation intentions involve planning out in advance when, where, and how you will perform a specific behavior in order to increase the likelihood of actually following through with that behavior.


For example, instead of simply saying "I want to exercise more," someone might create an implementation intention that says "Whenever I come home from work on weekdays, I will immediately change into workout clothes and go for a 30-minute run around the park." By linking a specific cue (coming home from work) to a specific behavior (going for a run), the person is more likely to follow through with their exercise goals.


There are several reasons why implementation intentions can be beneficial:


  1. They increase the likelihood of follow-through: By linking a specific cue to a specific behavior, implementation intentions help individuals overcome common obstacles such as forgetfulness or lack of motivation.

  2. They reduce decision fatigue: When a person has a specific plan in place, they don't need to spend time and energy deciding what to do in a given situation. This can help reduce decision fatigue and increase overall productivity.

  3. They help build habits: By consistently linking a specific cue to a specific behavior, implementation intentions can help individuals develop habits that become automatic over time.

  4. They improve self-regulation: Implementation intentions help individuals regulate their behavior by creating a plan in advance. This can help individuals resist temptation and stay on track with their goals.


Important note: Perfectionism can undermine the effectiveness of implementation intentions: The article "Implementation intentions, perfectionism, and goal progress: perhaps the road to hell is paved with good intentions" by Gollwitzer and Sheeran (2006) found that participants who were higher in perfectionism were less likely to benefit from implementation intentions, potentially because they set overly high standards for themselves and were more likely to feel discouraged when they didn't meet those standards.


Overall, implementation intentions are a powerful tool for increasing the likelihood of following through with desired behaviors and achieving long-term goals. However, their effectiveness may depend on factors such as timing, goal complexity, and individual differences such as perfectionism.


Some Final Tips for Sustainable Behavior Change


Making behavior changes can be challenging, but there are several strategies that can help make the process easier and more sustainable. One strategy is to focus on small changes that can be achieved gradually over time. For example, instead of trying to completely eliminate all unhealthy foods from one's diet, a small change might be to replace one unhealthy snack per day with a healthier option.

Another strategy is to create an environment that supports positive behaviors. Research has shown that environmental cues can play a significant role in shaping behavior (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008). For example, keeping healthy snacks visible and easily accessible can encourage healthy eating habits.


In essence, you want to:


  • Reduce friction between you and your goal-compatible actions

  • Increase friction between you and your goal-incompatible actions

  • Introduce strategies that make your goal striving process easier


Some practical examples:


  • Keep healthy foods visible and accessible, such as placing fruit in a bowl on the counter or keeping cut-up vegetables at eye level in the fridge

  • Create a designated workout space in your home, such as a yoga mat in the living room or a set of dumbbells in the bedroom

  • Use a standing desk or take regular breaks to move throughout the day to combat sitting for long periods of time

  • Set up reminders or cues for healthy habits, such as leaving a water bottle on your desk to remind you to drink more water or putting your running shoes by the door to remind you to go for a run

  • Use smaller plates and bowls to help control portion sizes

  • Keep a visible log or record of progress, such as a calendar to track workout days or a food diary to record meals and snacks

  • Surround yourself with supportive people who also prioritize healthy habits and behaviors

  • Remove distractions during mealtimes, such as turning off the TV or putting away phones, to focus on mindful eating and enjoying your food


Accountability and support are also important factors in sustainable behavior change. Having an accountability partner, such as a friend or coach, can provide motivation and support during the behavior change process. Research has shown that social support is positively associated with successful behavior change (Prochaska et al., 1992).


Finally, it is important to celebrate small successes along the way and to be kind to oneself when setbacks occur. Research has shown that positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment in shaping behavior (Skinner, 1953).


Conclusion


Accomplishing goals through sustainable behavior change requires setting realistic and measurable goals, focusing on small changes, creating a supportive environment, seeking accountability and support, and celebrating successes along the way. While behavior change can be challenging, it is an essential component of achieving long-term goals and personal growth. By using evidence-based strategies, individuals can make lasting changes and achieve their goals.


Hopefully, this post was helpful and gave you a framework to use with your own goals. It can be a challenge to navigate this process alone, but you don't have to do it by yourself. We offer expert guidance and personalized support tailored to your unique needs. So, if you're ready to start your journey towards a healthier, fitter you, don't hesitate to contact us today. We look forward to helping you achieve your health and fitness goals!





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