Setting Goals and Planning for Physical Activity: Under What Conditions Might They Work Best?

Nov 14, 2022
Steve Amireault
Steve Amireault

Physical activity has been referred to as one of the closest things to a ‘wonder’ or ‘miracle’ drug. 1, 2 Indeed, physical activity has very few side effects and helps people of all ages live a longer, healthier, and happier life.

Although ‘exercise is nature’s medicine’ 3 , few people take this medicine on a regular basis. Goal setting and planning are two of the most often used strategies for promoting physical activity. Despite their effectiveness 4, 5 and widespread popularity among the population and practitioners, goal setting and planning may be unhelpful when used under certain conditions. The purpose of this article is to shed light on these conditions and provide some suggestions for improving physical activity and well-being through goal setting and planning. 

Reese C. Kerschner
Reese C. Kerschner

Are specific goals and plans always good?

Goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time bound are SMART goals. In the physical activity and exercise domains, specific physical activity goals are assumed to be better than vague ones for promoting physical activity. The reason for this commonly held assumption for best practice is that a specific goal is thought to provide guidance and direction about what one is supposed to do to make progress toward one’s goal. While SMART goals have been shown to be effective in the education, sport, health, and fitness domains, there is evidence that specific goals are not more effective as vague or learning goals in the physical activity and exercise domains, especially when people are learning or pursuing a new activity. 5, 6 A specific goal (e.g., to engage in 150 min/week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity) not only provides guidance and direction but may also clarify when one is not doing what’s supposed to be done. As such, people setting specific goals may consider themself unsuccessful – and feel bad about it – if they have not fully met those goals, especially if such goals have not been completed on time (i.e., when a goal is time-bound). In contrast, people who set vaguer or do-your-best goals (e.g., to exercise more, to get fit) may consider themself successful – and feel good about it – even if they have only made some progress in that general direction. Goals more vaguely defined (e.g., to exercise more) or learning goals (e.g., to find 3 ways to increase your daily step count this week) can provide people more flexibility to adjust to everyday life events and stressors, and help people avoid the use of an all-or-none approach (success vs. failure) to goal striving and being discouraged when a specific goal is not met. 

Heesoo Roh
Heesoo Roh

Plans can help one meets their goals by specifying when, where and how physical activity will be performed, and how one will cope with potential obstacles that could get in the way. For instance, someone may plan to walk on a treadmill inside when the weather is bad. However, the physical activity experience may not be an enjoyable one if that person prefers walking outside because they enjoy the natural scenery over the solitude and gray walls of the basement in which the treadmill is. 7 Although walking on a treadmill would be a practical solution for walking when the weather is bad, this alternative may not be perceived as enjoyable because of the boring atmosphere and lack of social interactions that would provide physical activity performed alone in a basement. This is important as experiences that bring enjoyment and satisfaction are key to promoting sustained engagement in physical activity and well-being. 8  

Emily R. Jakob
Emily R. Jakob

Suggestions for improving physical activity and well-being through goal setting and planning: 

Some physical activity is better than none. Although reaching the recommended weekly physical activity goal of 150 min/week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is optimal for both physical health and well-being 9 , you don’t need to absolutely reach this threshold to experience some health benefits and improvement in well-being. Even light-intensity physical activity can be beneficial. 10  

It is okay to have more vaguely-defined and learning goals if they help you keep going. This is especially important as there is evidence that instigating physical activity sessions (showing up to the gym) may be more important for establishing a physical activity routine and habits than how those sessions are executed (i.e., the amount of physical activity performed at the gym). 11 Note, however, that there is nothing inherently wrong with SMART goals, especially for people who are already physically active. 

Plans should be not only practical but also emotionally pleasing. Plans can serve as a reminder, an outline of what, when, and where physical activity will be carried out, and they can also serve as a shield from temptations. As reported in previous S2L tips of the week article8, intrinsic motivation is key to promoting sustained engagement in physical activity and well-being. Plans that are also emotionally pleasing may thus increase the chances that they will be implemented when needed. 

  1. Carrol, A. E. (2016, June 22). Closest Thing to a Wonder Drug? Try Exercise. The New York Times.,death%20among%20patients%20from%20strokes. 
  2. Science Friday. (2013, December 13). This Doc’s Miracle Drug? Exercise. NPR.
  3. Ismail, A. H. (personal citation). Professor of Kinesiology, Department of Health and Kinesiology, Purdue University.
  4. Bélanger-Gravel, A., Godin, G., & Amireault, S. (2013). A meta-analytic review of the effect of implementation intentions on physical activity. Health Psychology Review, 7(1), 23–54.
  5. Swann, C., Rosenbaum, S., Lawrence, A., Vella, S. A., McEwan, D., & Ekkekakis, P. (2021). Updating goal-setting theory in physical activity promotion: A critical conceptual review. Health Psychology Review, 15(1), 34–50.
  6. Beauchamp, M. R., Crawford, K. L., & Jackson, B. (2019). Social cognitive theory and physical activity: Mechanisms of behavior change, critique, and legacy. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 42, 110–117.
  7. Huffman, M. K., & Amireault, S. (2021). What keeps them going, and what gets them back? Older adults’ beliefs about physical activity maintenance. The Gerontologist, 61(3), 392–402.
  8. Teas, E. & Friedman, E. (2022, September 5). Let’s Get Physical. Steps to Leaps Well-Being Tip of the Week.
  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018) Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  10. Sylvester, B. D., Ahmed, R., Amireault, S., & Sabiston, C. M. (2017). Changes in light-, moderate-, and vigorous-intensity physical activity and changes in depressive symptoms in breast cancer survivors: A prospective observational study. Supportive Care in Cancer, 25(11).
  11. Feil, K., Allion, S., Weyland, S., & Jekauc, D. (2021). A systematic review examining the relationship between habit and physical activity behavior in longitudinal studies. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 409. 



Reese C. Kerschner is a sophomore pursuing a Bachelor's of Science in Psychological Sciences.

Emily R. Jakob is pursuing a PhD in Health and Kinesiology in the area of Exercise Psychology. 

Heesoo Roh is pursuing a dual-title PhD in Health and Kinesiology and Gerontology in the area of Exercise Psychology.

The students listed above are members of the Physical Activity Psychology Lab at Purdue University working with Dr. Steve Amireault.

Steve Amireault is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology. He examines the primary drivers of sustained engagement in physical activity behavior across the adult lifespan. His research interests include the identification of the primary drivers of sustained engagement in physical activity participation in order to design effective interventions to help people adopt and maintain an active lifestyle.

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