Posted in Fitness

We all know the difference between making a resolution and keeping it, right? Well no-one knows more about it than motivation expert Professor David E. Conroy. We talk to him about what helps get us moving, and how to set realistic goals we can stick to.

MARGO WHITE: It’s the season to make those New Year’s resolutions, but they don’t tend to last do they?

DAVID CONROY: Physical activity and weight loss are the two big resolutions that people make, year in and year out. The fact that they are the most common resolutions year after year shows how challenging it is to stick with them. It’s probably more the rule than the exception that people struggle when they pursue dramatic behavior changes around New Year’s; they’ll stay true to the goal for a few weeks, and then abandon it.

What are some of the ways we set ourselves up for failure?

There are lots of reasons. Sometimes the resolutions are unrealistic; people think they are going to do more than is possible for them, so they disengage from the goal once it becomes apparent that the goal is a futile one.

In other cases people aren’t using sound strategies for pursuing the goal; what they’ve got in mind is realistic, but they’re not tooled up to achieve that goal. And in some cases life intervenes.

So it’s a bit more complicated than just setting goals, right?

It’s tough to change behavior. Any time that you’re trying to engage in behavior change, you’re swimming against the current, because you’re relying on willpower to go against all those existing patterns of behavior – the habits you’ve developed over years – that you’re now trying to replace with a new behavior.

How can we set ourselves up for less chance of failure?

Be realistic about what you want do; setting a high but realistic goal is part of the picture.

I think it’s also important that the goal is meaningful and people have a clear sense of why they want to be more active.

You need to be rewarded for doing it when you’re doing it. With physical activity, many of the rewards are delayed. You can tell people that by being more physically active they’re preventing chronic disease in 30 years, but this isn’t often seen as a compelling reward – people want something that feels good right now. We’re not good at delaying gratification. Short-term rewards end up driving behavior, so we need to find meaning in what we’re doing in the short term, as well as thinking about the longer term objectives. One of the most accessible rewards, are the intrinsic rewards of the activity itself.

One mistake people often make is going too hard and too fast on a new exercise program, and not giving themselves the chance to adapt. If you’re not as fit as you need to be to do that program, you’ll be miserable during the activity, and also afterwards, because you’ll be sore. Most people won’t go back to doing something that feels unpleasant to do.

Presumably fitness instructors need to bear this in mind?

Yes. Fitness instructors need to find a trade-off, between stimulating fitness adaptations, and also making it enjoyable so that people want to come back. And it can be hard, when working with clients, to find an activity program that leads to maximum health benefits, but also keeps people adhering to that program. Yet that’s what separates a great instructor from a good instructor.

You have studied the importance of habits – incorporating activity into our days and weeks that becomes as habitual as making dinner. How do you do that?

Yeah, that’s at the forefront of our field at the moment – we’re very interested in seeing if there are ways we can train people to make physical activity more an automatic choice, not one they have to labor over. This is often about getting people to identify a cue – it might be a time of day, it might be a location, it might be a feeling they have – and have them pair that cue with behaviors so it becomes more habitual. Such as, if it’s 5pm, then it‘s time to go for a run.

Researchers have been trying to look at how long it will take to form a habit but that’s a controversial topic. One study asked people to set a goal for a new behavior and develop an action plan, such as going for a ten-minute walk in the morning after they’ve had their cup of coffee. The researchers did find that that behavior became automatic over time, and the average number of days it took to form a habit was 66 days. But the range around that was huge. Some people took 18 days and others took 254 days. So people will form habits at different speeds.

You and your team have also looked at the pros and cons of fitness apps, a market that has exploded in recent years. What did you find?

It’s really hard to find evidence for specific apps. One reason is that software developers usually measure their success in terms of the number of downloads. They don’t often look for evidence of efficacy, whether they help change people’s behavior. So there is void in terms of evidence.

And behavioral scientists haven’t been able to fill that void, because the technology is evolving at a rate that is faster than the research can keep up with. It takes at least two years to do a large-scale randomized trial of a simple intervention, but apps can change and be updated in the time it takes to do the trial. So we don’t have enough rigorous efficacy studies.

So you looked at the behavior change techniques used in some of the top-ranked apps for physical activity. What did you learn?

Apps tend to fall into two types based on how behavior change techniques are configured. One set is largely focused around educating people around how to perform particular exercises. The other set is oriented around motivation. Both sets tend to include a support element – so, for instance, you can connect to social media through the app, and get support from your social networks. We don’t know which works better for supporting behavior change, but from a practical standpoint, when you’re thinking about downloading and installing an app on your phone, you want to think about the function you need that app to serve. Do you need something that helps teach you how to be active, and walks you through some of the exercises? Or do you want something that will help you with the self-regulatory skills and support you to do an activity? It may be that you want both, and you need two or more different apps.

Wearable devices have been spectacularly successful. Any thoughts on them?

They’re built on the idea that if you’ve set a goal, you can be more effective in pursuing that goal if you get feedback on how well you’re doing in pursuing that goal. For example, if your goal is 9000 steps a day, but your device tells you that you’re only getting 6000, you know you need to try a little harder. So it’s made it easy to get feedback on behavior.

The question is whether getting that feedback automatically is as effective as when you think through what you’ve been doing to recall when you were active or not active in a day, reflecting on the opportunities you seized or the ones you passed on. We know that self-monitoring is very important for behavior change – and it’s not clear if you’ll get the same level of impact when you have the feedback provided automatically. But if the device has stimulated people to think about their activity levels, and whether they’re doing enough, then that’s really valuable.


  • Aim high, but be realistic about what you can achieve.
  • Focus on short-term rewards, as they are what drive behavior change.
  • If you’re starting a new exercise program ease your way into it – this will give your body the chance to adapt and ensure you don’t get put off.
  • A good way to form a habit is to match a cue with a behavior i.e. at 5pm go for a run, or after breakfast go for a walk.
  • Know that people form habits at different speeds – some take 18 days, some take 254 (the average is 66 days).
  • Use a fitness tracker to measure how you’re tracking towards your activity goal, but don’t solely rely the device. Self-monitoring where you reflect on your actions is very important for behavior change.

David Conroy Headshot

David E. Conroy is Professor of Kinesiology and Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on motivation; what motivate peoples’ physical activity, and what might prevent people from being physically active, how that changes over time naturally as well as in response to interventions.

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