Exercise Is the Goal

High exercise activity likelier to occur among older women who set exercise specific goals

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

For a lot of people, breaking down exercise into smaller parts or short-term goals can make it more manageable to accomplish. Exercise goals may help people, including older individuals, get active.

Older women who set exercise-related goals were more likely to report exercising more often than those who did not set any exercise goals, a recent study found.

According to the researchers, setting specific goals could help increase exercise levels among older adults.

The findings also showed how personal goals that aren't related to physical activity can hinder exercise behavior among this population.

"Talk to a personal trainer if you're unsure about what's a safe exercise."

This study, led by Milla Saajanaho, a doctoral student in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, looked at how setting personal and exercise-related goals affected older women's levels of physical activity over an eight-year period.

The study included a little more than 300 community-living older women who took part in the Finnish Twin Study on Aging (FITSA) between 2000 and 2001. The participants were between 66 and 79 years of age at the start of the study.

The women were interviewed in person at a research center about their personal goals and how much exercise and physical activity they engaged in. Physical activity was divided into five categories: no exercise, some exercise, moderate exercise, quite a lot of exercise and a great deal of exercise.

By the end of the follow-up period in 2011, 25 of the participants had died, another 15 were not able or willing to participate and six could not be reached.

Goals that related to cultural activities, including staying busy around the home, were also taken into account.

Personal goals that looked at health more broadly or focused on being able to live independently were considered separate from exercise-related goals. Based on the participants' responses, the researchers came up with 19 categories of personal goals, including health and functioning, close relationships, health of others and independent living.

The researchers found that the 37 percent of participants who reported having exercise-related personal goals were four times more likely to engage in higher levels of physical activity compared to the women who did not set goals related to exercise.

In total, 43 percent of the women who set exercise goals reported high exercise activity at the start of the study. Among those who did not have set goals, only 16 percent reported doing high levels of exercise.

By the end of the follow-up period, 23 percent of the women who had set exercise goals and 9 percent of those who did not have exercise goals continued to engage in high levels of exercise activity.

Overall, 15 percent of the participants continued to engage in high levels of exercise activity. Another 11 percent increased their level of activity from low to high, and 12 percent had their activity decrease from high to low.

The women who set exercise goals were younger and had less difficulty walking 2 kilometers or more (about 1.2 miles or more) than those who did not have exercise-related goals. Furthermore, the women with exercise goals also felt more comfortable with their financial situation than those who did not have goals.

Individuals who set broader health goals, which included both their own and other people's health, were less likely to have specific exercise-related goals, according to the researchers.

The researchers also found that goals that focused on independent living reduced the chances of setting exercise-related goals.

According to the researchers, health problems and concerns over weakening health might be one reason why older women who had more health- and functioning-related goals were less likely to set specific exercise goals.

"Because older adults’ health-related goals typically include goals for avoiding illnesses, rather than engaging in health behaviors that might improve health and functioning, they may be [opposed] to exercise-related goals," the researchers wrote in their report.

Other reasons for not setting exercise-specific goals, according to the researchers, could be from people's beliefs about whether they are capable of doing higher levels of physical activity and from other personal goals that interfere with exercise.

"Hopes and fears about health or maintaining independence may reflect poorer subjective health and result from maladaptive rumination over health issues," the study authors wrote.

The authors noted a few limitations of their study, including that it was part of a larger overarching study on body function. The researchers said that being part of a larger study might have influenced the participants' responses regarding personal goals.

Other limitations included having participants who were all relatively healthy, older women and the self-reported nature of the exercise level measurements. Participants might have had different ideas about what physical activity is.

The researchers said that the links between goal setting and exercise might have proven stronger if the analysis had included more participants with health problems.

"This study make sense given the current research on goals.  Goal setting for athletics and goal setting for life are very similar.  Current research shows that goals that have the highest chance of being accomplished revolve around relatedness, competence and autonomy.  Goals should be specific and challenging," Jack Newman, Austin Tennis Academy's Head Coach and CEO, told dailyRx News.
"Finally, the use of mental contrasting to help accomplish goals is vital, first you imagine attaining your goal, and then you reflect on the obstacles that stand in the way," said Newman.

This study, supported by the University of Jyväskylä, will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity.

Review Date: 
September 6, 2013
Last Updated:
September 17, 2013