Choose personal exercise goals, then tackle them immediately

When people set their own exercise goals—and then pursue them immediately—it’s more likely to result in lasting positive changes, according to a new study at the Perelman School of Medicine. The results of this research are especially important because they are found among an underserved population that is at particularly high risk of having or developing heart conditions. The study is published in JAMA Cardiology.

Three people as seen from the ground wearing running shoes on a paved running trail.

“Most behavior change programs involve goal-setting, but the best way to design that process is unknown,” says lead author Mitesh Patel, an associate professor of medicine at Penn and vice president for clinical transformation at Ascension. “Our clinical trial demonstrated that physical activity increased the most when patients chose their goals rather than being assigned them, and when the goals started immediately rather than starting lower and gradually increasing over time. These findings are particularly important because the patients were from lower income neighborhoods and may face a number of challenges in achieving health goals.”

This study consisted of 500 patients from low-income neighborhoods, mainly in West Philadelphia but also elsewhere in and outside of the city. Participants either had a cardiovascular disease or were assessed to have a near-10% risk of developing one within a decade. These high-risk patients stood to greatly gain from increased physical activity.

After analyzing the results, the researchers saw that the only group of participants who achieved significant increases in activity were those who chose their own goals and started immediately. They had the highest average increase in their steps compared to the group with no goals, roughly 1,384 steps per day. And, in addition to raw step counts, the study also measured periods of sustained, high activity, amounting to an average increase of 4.1 minutes daily.

Comparatively, those who were assigned their goals or had full goals delayed for half the intervention only increased their daily steps above the control group’s average by between 500 and 600 steps.

This story is by Frank Otto. Read more at Penn Medicine News.