Set concrete goals, see more results

Setting goals helps you get to the gym and see more results.

People who set goals and plan ways to reach them end up exercising more.

That’s the finding of a new study from the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon, USA.

The research, which has been published in the journal Psychological Science, looked at a personality trait called ‘planfulness’, which can explain behavioural differences in people — including why some people reach their goals and others don’t.

Planfulness is a way of thinking about goals that increase the likelihood of achieving them. This includes being able to imagine the future impact of present behaviour (temporal orientation), mental flexibility to think about your actions in terms of goals; and cognitive strategies to deal with obstacles.

“There indeed appears to be a certain way of thinking about goals that correlates with long-term progress,” said lead author Rita M. Ludwig.

“What’s new in this study is that we used an objective measure of goal progress that could be recorded as participants naturally went about their lives: their check-ins at a local gym.”

The study

Over 20 weeks, the researchers examined how often their 282 participants went to the gym.

Many of the participants were students; their gym was the campus recreation centre.

Using the gym’s membership card swiping system, researchers could track the number of times people went to the gym. Participants also completed a written exercise plan.

In addition, participants filled out a variety of psychological surveys, including a 30-point ‘Planfulness’ scale devised by the study authors.

The results

The researchers found that gym goers who rated themselves highly on the planfulness scale attended the gym more often than those who ranked themselves lower.

In particular, items such as ‘developing a clear plan when I have a goal is important to me’ associated positively with higher gym attendance.

Interestingly, the researchers saw a decline in gym attendance among all participants. This was regardless of their planfulness score. In addition, it didn’t matter how details participants’ exercise plans were. The level of detail in the participants’ exercise plans was not correlated with how often they exercised, surprising the researchers.

“This work is broadly informative for those who are curious about how people pursue health goals, including their own patterns of thought around goals,” said Dr. Ludwig.

“Clinicians might find it helpful in understanding how their patients tend to think about goals and whether person-to-person differences in such thinking are related to outcomes.”


Ludwig, R.M., Srivastava, S. and Berkman, E.T. (2019.) ‘Predicting Exercise With a Personality Facet: Planfulness and Goal Achievement.’ Psychological Science. First Published September 17, 2019.

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