PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Setting realistic exercise goals to achieve that day may be the key to losing more weight and staying fit, a new study finds. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania say daily positive steps towards long-term changes are a powerful psychological tool that can achieve overarching goals.

The study authors add if people “gamify” their workouts and compete, like seeing how many steps they take compared to friends and family, that can also encourage wellness. This technique especially works in people who are at high risk of developing heart conditions and those in low-income households.

Penn researchers equipped 500 participants with a wearable step tracker that recorded their step counts on a walking-to-health app. However, the team still let some participants to some to set their own daily and weekly goals.

Study authors split the walkers into either a control group, which didn’t have step goals or games attached, and one with gamified goals each day. In the gamified group, researchers either assigned walkers a standard step goal or allowed them to set the goals themselves.

Your goals may determine your weight

The study reveals that the only group of participants who achieved significant increases in activity chose their own goals and started immediately.

It turns out, walkers who set their own goals had the highest average increase in daily steps, pushing their goals by about 1,400 steps each day. They also continued their workouts longer, increasing their activity by just over four minutes each day.

“Most behavior change programs involve goal-setting, but the best way to design that process is unknown,” says Dr. Mitesh Patel, associate professor of Medicine at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, in a university release.

“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.”

“Individuals who select their own goals are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to follow through on them,” adds Dr. Kelvin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics. “They feel like the goal is theirs and this likely enables greater engagement.”

Goal-setting is a fundamental element of almost every physical activity program, whether through a smartphone app or in a workplace wellness program,” Volpp concludes. “Our findings reveal a simple approach that could be used to improve the impact of these programs and the health of their patients.”

The study appears in the journal JAMA Cardiology.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.

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