If you watched BoJack Horseman, you may remember a particular line — in context about exercise, but also about life in general — that capped off season two: “It gets easier. But you’ve gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part.”
An adult cartoon about a depressed horse isn’t the first place to go for advice on exercise and goal setting, but it’s an accurate statement. While consistency influences healthy habits, you ultimately are the deciding point when it comes to maintaining those habits.
This concept was explored in a study published this September in the journal JAMA Cardiology. A team of researchers led by Dr. Mitesh Patel examined two factors that influence healthy exercise habits, ultimately finding two especially critical actions. You’re more likely to stick with exercise if you:
- Choose your own goals
- Begin pursuing those goals immediately
Why it’s a hack — While goal setting and exercising are nothing new, this study illustrates the flawed reasoning that often undermines both of these efforts.
“I think a common misperception is that we need to set ambitious goals and that people can't select the right goal for themselves,” Patel, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Inverse. This is how we’ve ended up thinking of 10,000 daily steps as the marker of good health.
“Let someone establish their baseline, maybe it’s 3,000 [steps] to start with and choose that they want to walk 5,000, that's the right goal for them,” he says.
Basically, you know yourself better than anyone else, so you’ll know what’s challenging yet attainable for you. This way, you can skip enrolling in one-size-fits-some boot camp sessions in favor of setting your own goals.
“I think a common misperception is that we need to set ambitious goals ...”
This, in turn, fosters sustainability. Maybe a two-week intensive will wake up your musculoskeletal system, but the high pressure isn't sustainable.
Patel and colleagues also found the sooner you pursue your goals, the better.
If you’re inclined to ramp up gradually to your goal, maybe you should choose an easier goal — something you can jump into right away. Make your exercise as easy as possible to accomplish: consistency is more important than difficulty, especially when starting out.
Science in action — This study team examined 500 adults over the course of six months.
For the first four months, participants exercised using a basic smartphone game that noted how much or little they walked each day. During the subsequent two months, they stopped using the game. The goal was to see how their habits would be affected.
There were a few different groups. Some set their own exercise goals in the form of steps per day, while other participants had goals set for them. People could also choose to increase their daily steps between 1,000 and 3,000 steps above their baseline. Some began pursuing their goals right away while others gradually ramped up to theirs.
The gamification aspect served to show that intrinsic motivation can be powerful when coupled with some extrinsic motivation. Those who set their own goals (internal motivation) and played the game for four months (external) were more likely to continue walking more steps each day once the game was removed.
“One thing that many people were surprised at was that behavior completely was sustained when we turned off the game for eight weeks,” Patel says. “They had about a 1,400-step increase, and when we turned it off, that remained. The full behavior was sustained in the follow-up period.”
In the future, Patel wants to see a much longer study that examines exactly how long this behavior can be sustained. Months? Years?
It’s the pairing of internal and external motivation that’s the winning combo, Patel explains.
“When we turn that extrinsic gamification off, there's enough intrinsic motivation to sustain that behavior,” he says. You’re not solely relying on one or the other, you’re slowly building up your own internal motivation.
Crucially, all the participants had lower-income backgrounds and an elevated risk for health events like heart attacks and heart disease.
This element is paramount to the experiment because so much of what determines one’s ability to successfully achieve goals and form healthy habits is related to their socioeconomic status. The experiment reveals how you don’t need an expensive gym membership or personal trainer to set and achieve goals.
How this affects longevity — Daily exercise does wonders for longevity and quality of life. But what about healthy goal setting? As one 2019 study notes, “Setting goals is easy; achieving them is hard.”
Perhaps you’ve heard of SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timed. There’s an elusive science behind helping people design goals and then stay motivated enough to follow through.
And there’s a delicate balance of characteristics that can determine whether a goal makes one successful. For example, running a marathon is technically an attainable goal — but over what period of time? If you’re still practicing at running one mile, aiming for a marathon as your next immediate goal isn’t the best place to start.
Meanwhile, simply setting your goal as “exercise more” is daunting in its vagueness. How much more? What does exercise really mean to you?
This study endorses choosing specific goals and pushing yourself to start as soon as possible.
To take a page from Patel’s book, track how many steps you walk on a typical day. Aim to walk at least 1,000 more steps than your baseline each day, or whatever you deem to be sufficiently challenging. Commit to walking this much daily for at least six months.
This study goes to show that it’s possible for anyone to set and realize a goal — whether it be you, or a depressed cartoon horse.
Hack score out of 10 — 🏊🏿♂️🚶🏿♀🚶🏻🏃🏼🏃🏼🚴🏼🏊🏿♂️ (7/10 people swimming, walking, running, biking, wheeling at their own pace toward healthy habits)