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Goal setting, motivational types, and behavioral strategies to encourage fitness

This is an excerpt from EuropeActive's Foundations for Exercise Professionals by EuropeActive.

Behavioural Strategies to Enhance Exercise and Health Behaviour Change

As highlighted in the previous section, knowing the client is key to maximising motivation when it comes to exercise. This section aims to progress this forward by outlining key behavioural strategies that could be used to enhance motivation towards exercising. Four strategies will be discussed in all - goal setting, social support, self-monitoring and reinforcement - with examples of each given along the way.

Goal Setting

If you were to ask all people who exercise why they do so, they would all give you an answer specific to them as individuals. Whether it's to lose a bit of weight, prepare for an upcoming competition or beat a personal best in the squat rack, these are all forms of goal setting. So, people will already have end goals in mind, but are these goals achievable? Are they realistic? Are they motivational, or are they in fact the problem? Herein lies the importance of setting specific goals when it comes to motivating the exerciser (Coppack, Kristensen and Karageorghis 2012).

Key sport psychology literature (Weinberg and Gould 2007) recognises that there are three types of goals a person can set: outcome goals, performance goals and process goals. As the name suggests, outcome goals focus on the outcome or result of an event (completing a marathon, winning a boxing fight, losing 5 kg in weight) and heavily rely on external factors (opposition, form coming into an event, general lifestyle choices). Second, performance goals focus on the performance of an action, regardless of the outcome of an event (a runner may not win a marathon but may still set a new personal best in that event). Finally, there are process goals, which focus on specific actions that make up the overall performance (a triple jumper may set a process goal to increase his hop distance, somebody wanting to lose weight may set a process goal to run farther in 20 minutes than she has before).

This breakdown of goal setting has been simplified further with the use of tools such as the goal-setting staircase (see figure 18.1), which takes the three types of goal setting and divides them into long-term goals (outcome) and short-term goals (performance and process). The idea is that a long-term goal is achieved by successfully completing a range of short-term goals that lead up to it. When planning their goals, exercisers work backward down the staircase from their long-term goal to where they are today. Studies have shown that working backward from the end goal to the current position allows for greater specificity within each short-term goal (Weina, Chenglin, Liu and Watson 2012).

In terms of enhancing behavioural change, an effective goal-setting process is key. Quantifying a person's reason to exercise into a range of long-term and short-term goals can help her see what she needs to do in the short term to enable the long term to happen. Likewise, if a person's motivation levels are low when it comes to achieving a short-term goal, the reminder of why he is doing it (outcome goal) can have the same effect (Wilson and Brookfield 2009).
Goal-setting staircase.

Social Support

What people see and experience in their social settings often influence why they choose to exercise. Whether it's what they see and read in the media or what their colleagues do and think, many external influences can affect the motivation to exercise. Second to goal setting, social support is recognised as the next key factor when it comes to exercise motivation. Wills and Shinar (2000) proposed that the amount and type of support people receive is key to their motivation. The authors state that there are five types of social support: instrumental support, emotional support, informational support, companionship support and validation.

Instrumental support is support that offers practical help so people can achieve their goals. This can come from a range of sources, including a workplace having onsite facilities for exercise (work gym or swimming pool), a car park offering free parking for the gym or gym goers supporting each other while exercising.

Emotional support is most effective in helping to boost a person's self-confidence or to reduce any anxieties that someone new to exercising may be feeling. In its simplest (and most effective) form, it involves friends, family and exercise professionals offering verbal support to the exerciser, whether that support is encouragement to finish the last set of exercises or a shoulder to cry on if the person feels things are getting a little overwhelming. Simple cues and support can be the difference between a person carrying on with training or giving up altogether.

Informational support is just that, providing someone with information in order to help her exercise experience. This can come from all manner of resources, from online forums and websites to staff working at the gym. This information may be intimidating to some, especially novice exercisers, due to the jargon that can come with it, and many people tend to seek information from friends and family who are more experienced than they are when it comes to exercising.

Companionship support relates to the people who partake in exercise with the exerciser. Having a gym buddy or a running mate has been shown to dissociate the exerciser from negative feelings such as boredom and pain. Typically, the companion comes in the form of friends and family; however, companionship support can also come from exercising as a group or in a class.

Support through validation is a reflective process where the exerciser compares himself and his worries against the social norm. This helps people to gauge their progress against where others are ahead of and behind them. Validation often gives people a needed confidence boost and lets them know that others have been in their shoes before and have successfully achieved their behavioural change.

Social support can be very useful when it comes to motivating an exerciser, and there is great scope in which to do so. As mentioned in the previous section, the key to this is knowing each individual and what works for her. Research by Swanson, Colwell and Yushan (2008) showed that factors such as experience and exercise level can have an impact on the social support a person requires.


Self-monitoring is a process that allows exercisers to take control of what they are doing. More suited to someone who naturally has higher levels of motivation to begin with (Young, Medic and Strakes 2009), self-monitoring is most commonly done by maintaining a training journal or log. Within the journal, an exerciser would log each training session, noting key elements such as sets and reps or times and distances. This enables the exerciser to keep track of progress over a long time.

The training journal can be used in a number of ways when it comes to motivating the exerciser. First, if the exerciser is experiencing a lull in her training and is finding things hard going, just a simple recap of what she's done previously and how much she's improved can be enough to stimulate her training. Second, enabling the exerciser to take control of his own progress helps instil self-confidence that what he is doing is right (Hindle and Carpenter 2011). This level of control enables exercisers to push themselves because they can see physical evidence of their progress.

A noteworthy point associated with self-monitoring is that people tend to leave any negatives associated with their exercise out of their journals (e.g., failed reps or missed timing goals). This helps to highlight that self-monitoring is not for everyone because for it to have its full effect, the exerciser must be honest and fill it in correctly, including both positives and negatives that occur. With this in mind, this tool for behavioural change is best suited to more experienced exercisers. Because they are more accustomed to the demands of exercise, this added responsibility isn't as daunting as it might be to people who are embarking on their first experience of exercise.


This is a tool that can be used to influence motivation among exercisers of all levels and experiences. However, it must be used correctly because it can steer a person away from wanting to exercise just as easily as it can gain someone's interest. Another noteworthy point is that individual differences matter here, too; what may work as reinforcement for one person might have the opposite effect on someone else.

According to Skinner's (1953) stimulus - response theory, if someone receives reinforcement about what she is doing (good or bad), then chances are this will affect whether or not she repeats the behaviour in the future. Within the context of exercise, if somebody receives praise that his physique is improving due to exercise, then this will help to motivate him to exercise again in the future. There are two key elements of reinforcement, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, and it is generally accepted that positive and negative reinforcement help increase exercise adherence. There are also two adverse forms of reinforcement, punishment and extinction, which tend to discourage people from repeating an action, in this case exercising. Each aspect of reinforcement will now be discussed, with industry-specific examples given. To close this section, we will look at feedback and how different types of feedback can affect a person's motivation levels in very different ways.

Positive Reinforcement

As the name suggests, positive reinforcement is reinforcement that makes a person feel good about herself. It's an enjoyable experience that gives the person a feeling of self-worth and a confidence boost. There are two types of positive reinforcement: intrinsic reinforcement and extrinsic reinforcement (Weinberg and Gould 2007). Intrinsic reinforcement is praise or reward from within. It can be the satisfaction of completing a tough workout, feeling good about physical improvements to your appearance or just the general good feeling that is associated with becoming fitter and healthier. People who are new to exercise or who are low in motivation often neglect intrinsic reinforcement because they tend to have negative views about themselves (McAuley and Tammen 1989). Over time and continued exercise, intrinsic feelings have been shown to increase (Gallagher and Updegraff 2011), and as a person becomes more knowledgeable about things such as the difficulty of the workout he has just completed, he then allows himself to feel intrinsically positive, which in turn increases levels of intrinsic reinforcement.

Extrinsic reinforcement, on the other hand, comes from external sources. In its most basic form, it includes verbal praise from family and friends about how well somebody is doing in her new exercise regime or how well she looks for doing so. It can also come from peers within an exercise group or gym who notice an increase in a person's ability to complete an exercise or task. Exercise professionals are another key form of extrinsic reinforcement, and what they say tends to pack a bigger punch because the person in question feels good that the praise that his ability has increased or his physique has improved is coming from experts. Other forms of extrinsic reinforcement are taking advantage of offers that a gym may promote (reduced rates after committing to an exercise plan for so long, free merchandise for reaching certain training goals), having to purchase new clothes due to weight loss or seeing improvements by noticing an improved physique in the mirror.

Negative Reinforcement

The term negative reinforcement may seem to be a bad thing to people not in the know, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Negative reinforcement is a process exercisers may go through that reminds them why they are committing to an exercise regime and to the process of behavioural change. The best example of negative reinforcement is when a person feels bad for missing a workout or for eating something unhealthy. The feeling of guilt reminds the person why he is committing to changing his behaviour and makes it more likely that the negative experience will be avoided in the future. Another example of negative reinforcement would be pain or discomfort someone may feel due to a bad behaviour she is trying to change. If someone suffers from back pain (negative reinforcement) due to being overweight (bad behaviour), then this would help to reinforce that her behaviour change to exercise is the correct choice.

To get the most out of positive and negative reinforcement, its best for it to take place as soon after the event as possible (Weinberg, Garland, Bruya and Jackson 1990). This allows the person to associate the reinforcement with the feelings he currently has.


When we think of punishment, we think of the bad consequences that come because of the behaviour that took place before it (e.g., a student being told off by the teacher for breaking the rules in class). Whereas negative reinforcement tries to remove any negative consequences (e.g., back pain for being overweight), punishment has the opposite effect in adding to the negative. If the person trying to lose weight had increased feelings of pain in her back due to exercise, then this would act as a reinforcement not to exercise.


People who are new to exercise quickly experience its positive effects and benefits. However, when they become more established exercisers, these changes happen less frequently, and people can then become demoralised and feelings of doubt start to build as to why they are exercising. This in turn could cause them to stop exercising altogether. The most common example of this is people who are trying to lose weight. When they begin, they lose greater amounts of body weight and in turn feel positive about themselves. But when the weight loss slows down, chances are they will decrease the amount they exercise because they are not seeing the same results as when they started.

Role of Feedback

People react to feedback in their own way. What one person feels is a negative comment might be just the push another person needs to get motivated to exercise. The key to this again is getting to know the individual. An exercise professional may tell someone that he looks slimmer; however, if that person's reason for exercising is to increase the size of his physique, he could take this comment as a negative, which in turn could decrease the amount he exercises. Another example of this would be telling somebody new to exercising that other gym members squat far much more weight than she can. One person may take this as a negative and become intimidated while in the gym and thus stop exercising, whereas another person could use this as motivation to train harder and increase the amount she exercises in order to achieve similar results in the gym.

Although basic, these examples show how easy it is to motivate or demotivate somebody to exercise just by what you say. It could be the difference in helping someone or preventing someone from making that behavioural change, and the key lies with getting to know what makes a person tick - that is, getting to know the individual.

Learn more about EuropeActive's Foundations for Exercise Professionals.

More Excerpts From EuropeActive's Foundations for Exercise Professionals