Setting goals (no matter how SMART they are) won’t always lead to healthy new exercise habits. Research shows goal setting attempts can be ineffective unless you add additional strategies into the mix. And experts have pinpointed five of the best …

As the name suggests, behavior change techniques are the different tools and strategies used to assist in motivating the adoption or modification of a specific behavior. Experts have identified a total of 93 behavior change techniques that can be used by the healthy adult population to change physical activity behavior. Some are more effective than others – and there is one that ranks head and shoulders above the rest!


Self-monitoring of behavior involves identifying and recording an exercise action. This could be marking workouts off on a calendar, or keeping a weekly journal of exercise sessions and noting down what went well and areas to improve upon. The focus of the monitoring is on the behavior itself, not the outcome. (i.e. logging workouts in an app, not logging weight loss or changes to RPE).

Self-monitoring ranks top of the list for a reason – it’s the only technique that can be used in isolation to effectively change exercise habits. It’s also the active ingredient that makes the other four behavior change techniques listed below thrive. You can use any or all of the other behavior change techniques, however without self-monitoring, those efforts may not be effective.

The other top techniques to adopt

  1. Goal Setting of Behavior

Goal setting is the classic go-to when it comes to kicking off fresh exercise resolutions. This is understandable, as it makes sense to identify your destination when it comes to planning your journey. There are a few things to remember when setting goals:

  • It’s best to set a goal focused on behavior, rather than an outcome. A behavioral goal might be walking three kilometers every day or doing three BODYATTACKÔ workouts a week. An outcome goal is losing five kilograms over 10 weeks. Behavioral goals dial the focus to the process of living a life with more exercise, rather than pinning all efforts upon a distant outcome (which will probably occur anyway when you focus on the behavior). When you focus on only an outcome it can leave a ‘what now?’ feeling once that outcome has been reached. It also makes it harder to reflect and monitor the process of behavior change, which can negatively influence both physical and psychological improvements.
  • Goals do not always need to be specific. Particularly if you’re just starting an exercise regime. In this case, vague goals such as ‘walking more’ or ‘pushing harder in BODYSTEP this week’ can be ideal.
  • If you’re a regular exerciser, relative goals are important. For example, increasing the lower body weights you lift in BODYPUMP by 5% on the previous month is a solid goal that is relative to your current exercise and fitness level.
  • Goals you create and set yourself are ideal, but collaborative goal setting with a trainer or coach can also be very beneficial for adding extra accountability.
  • Finally, daily goals are the most effective when it comes to producing behavior change, and they need to be reviewed at least weekly or fortnightly.
  1. Feedback on Behavior

This involves gaining informative or evaluative feedback on your performance of a specific behavior. For example, by wearing a smartwatch you can record steps walked and see how your daily physical activity influences your total step count. Another example is having a fitness instructor provide feedback on form and intensity during workouts. This type of feedback will shape further and future action.

  1. Action Planning

Intentions are great! But without action, intentions remain just that! This is why it’s important to plan detailed information regarding your intended exercise behavior. You need to consider context, frequency, duration, and intensity and identify the 'when, where and how' of your exercise plan. For example, planning to walk around the neighborhood with your partner for 30 minutes every weekday before work. Action planning can also involve the ‘if, then’ strategy to help you overcome barriers. For example, ‘If I get held up at work and miss the 6pm gym class, I’ll go home and do a LES MILLS+ workout’.

  1. Review of Behavioral Goals

Reviewing goals is important, as behavior change may ideally lead to achievement, or on occasions, falling slightly short of the intended behavior. Such review presents an opportunity to reset the same goal (perhaps you simply need more time), modify the goal, or set a completely new goal.

Reviewing goals should occur either weekly or fortnightly. An example is examining whether your daily exercise goals for the past week have been reached, and then modifying your daily goals for the next week to promote success. This could be increasing daily activity further, or changing the activity altogether.

The use of three or five of the above techniques is ideal. Above all though, developing self-monitoring behaviors to help sustain new exercise behaviors is key to forming a long-term relationship with exercise.

The theory behind behavior change techniques

Control theory is one explanation as to why these specific behavior change techniques work. It proposes self-regulation, the exertion of control over thoughts, feelings, and actions, as a key component in human behavior. By seeking feedback regarding your self-regulation efforts and adjusting accordingly you can achieve your goals. Recognition of a discrepancy between your current state and your ideal state promotes behavior change towards reducing the discrepancy via such self-regulation.

A helpful analogy is that of a thermostat within a house. A goal temperature is set (goal setting), and the thermostat implements actions to change the temperature towards the goal, working its way incrementally degree-by-degree (tracked via self-monitoring). If the actions are too hot or too cold (feedback on behavior), the thermostat continues adjusting accordingly towards the goal temperature. A form of action planning may take place, whereby the thermostat only starts working to increase the temperature if the temperature during the night drops to a certain low degree, and a review of goals might take place as the season starts to change, say from winter to spring, and thus different temperature goals are required.

In summary …

Your continued striving towards a goal is dependent upon the feedback you receive. Self-monitoring, setting goals and action plans, and reviewing and obtaining feedback on these goals is key to helping control your behavior and efforts.

Learn more about the science behind embedding healthy habits for life.

Emma Slade is an Australian Registered Psychologist and Sport and Exercise Psychologist. Her passion is the psychology behind movement, exercise, and physical fitness. Through her practice, In Motion Psychology, she works with individuals wanting to overcome psychological barriers to exercise, everyday exercisers who want to take their physical activity to the next level, through to those who want to reach their peak performance in competitive training, exercise, and sport domains. She additionally consults with fitness trainers, gyms and studios, and the fitness industry regarding how to help promote a positive relationship between clients and physical activity. Emma's published research explored how group exercise instructors can use social Identity leadership to positively influence participants ongoing attendance to the class and physical effort within the class. In addition to her client and consultancy work, Emma teaches at the Australian Catholic University in the areas of exercise, health, and lifestyle counseling.