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This Trick Could Help You Set Healthy Habits You'll Actually Stick To, Study Finds

Abby Moore
Author:
September 8, 2021
Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager
By Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Image by Marco Govel / Stocksy
September 8, 2021

If short-lived New Year's resolutions have taught us anything, it's that setting new goals is easy, but actually following through with them can feel pretty challenging. Luckily, a study published in JAMA Cardiology found the key to creating lasting habits: It's all about setting your own exercise goals and engaging in them ASAP.

The four-month-long study included 500 participants from lower-income neighborhoods, who either had a cardiovascular disease or were at an increased risk of developing one. They were all given wearable trackers to monitor their physical activity levels, then split into a control group or a gamified group. 

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Those in the gamified group went through two challenges: One determined whether their daily step goals would be assigned or self-chosen; the other determined if they would start their goal immediately or gradually work up to it. 

The key to setting sustainable goals. 

The researchers found those who chose their own step goals and started them immediately had the highest average daily step count (roughly 1,384 steps). They were also more likely to maintain those moderate to vigorous physical activity levels in a two-month follow-up. 

"It is exciting to see that the group that increased their activity levels by the most steps maintained those levels during follow-up," lead study author Mitesh S. Patel, M.D., MBA, said in a news release. "This indicates that gamification with self-chosen and immediate goals helped these patients form a new habit."

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The takeaway. 

The lesson from all of this? Find the exercise that works for you! If running makes you miserable and hurts your joints, don't make it your goal to run a mile every morning. If you need loud music and fast-paced cardio to get you through your workout, it's probably not wise to invest in that yoga subscription. 

Certified Pilates instructor Helen Phelan refers to this as intuitive exercise, which is all about "finding an exercise modality that brings you joy and paying attention to how your body feels when you're moving." And just as the study reinforced: "Using that mood, energy, and confidence boost as your motivation will help foster a much longer-lasting habit," Phelan said of setting healthy goals.

"Individuals who select their own goals are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to follow through on them," said Kevin Volpp, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics. "They feel like the goal is theirs, and this likely enables greater engagement." 

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Abby Moore
Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager

Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.