Doing What We Mean to Do: Following Through with Fitness Goals

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Doing What We Mean to Do: Following Through with Fitness Goals

Joe Sherlock, ACSM Copywriter |  Feb. 20, 2024

As February comes to a close, I have to ask — have you kept up with your fitness resolutions? We’re in the period where people tend to fall off, after all. 

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not the kind of person who needs to make a New Years’ resolution to get in shape. But maybe you have some additional goals, like hitting a new squat PR or switching up your routine to include more cardio. 

And then there are your clients. Are they keeping up with their routines? Are they showing up regularly, or do they miss more days than not? It can get a little frustrating to work with a client over the course of weeks or months only to see them either slowly fade away or, only slightly better, miss so many scheduled classes and sessions that they simply aren’t getting in enough structured exercise to actually progress. 

In the latter case especially, they really do intend to make a change in their lives, but something keeps them from following through. Is there anything we can do? 

There’s some interesting research to take into account here. In their 2021 ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal (FIT) article “Closing the Intention–Behavior Gap,” authors Liz Hathaway, Ph.D., MPH, and Mckenzie Gregg, MPH, note that “ … people successfully translate intentions into actions only about 50% of the time.” (The article is an installment in Hathaway and Gregg’s regular FIT column, “Enhancing Your Behavioral Toolkit,” which covers issues of behavior and motivation.) 

To help us better explore what’s happening when people don’t follow through with their intentions, Hathaway and Gregg lay out four categories of people: inclined actors, disinclined actors, inclined abstainers and disinclined abstainers. 

Inclined actors intend to do something and then do it. Disinclined actors don’t intend to do something but then do it. Inclined abstainers intend to do something but then don’t follow through. Disinclined abstainers didn’t do something, but they never intended to anyway.  

Naturally, for our purposes we’re focusing on inclined abstainers. So, how many people is that? Hathaway and Gregg cite a meta-analysis of 10 studies that showed 36% of participants were inclined abstainers (second only to inclined actors, at 42%). This is, potentially, quite a large group. 

Things get more troubling when the timescale is shorter. Hathaway and Gregg cite the study “Momentary assessment of physical activity intention–behavior coupling in adults,” which showed that when participants were asked whether they intend to engage in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity within the next three hours, 41% indicated they did. But only 16% of those who reported they intended to exercise within that timeframe actually did so. If your client decides on a day-to-day basis whether they want to exercise or not, they may be less likely to follow through with the decision than if they have a regular schedule to adhere to. 

But what else can inclined abstainers do to increase their chances of becoming inclined actors? 

The good news is that there are some strategies we can use to close the gap between intention and action. The first, which Hathaway and Gregg gleaned from “Intention–behavior gap is wider for walking and moderate physical activity than for vigorous physical activity in university students,” is based on the fact that people are more likely to follow through with lower-intensity activities. This makes intuitive sense, and a good takeaway might be to have your clients start slow. After all, it’s better to plan on doing something small and getting it done than it is to plan to do something elaborate and fail to do it. So, managing expectations at the beginning of a new client relationship can be important: teaching people that they’re not failures if they don’t go from zero to 60. Rather, encouraging a steady stream of small successes will probably be more beneficial. 

Another insight from the same paper is that focusing on how to translate intention into action may be more important than building intention. Meaning, meticulously planning out a workout routine that could help you achieve your goals is great, but meticulously planning when you’ll pack your gym bag, what time you need to leave for the gym in order to get a full workout in, and potentially even how you’ll need to update your laundry schedule to make sure you always have clean gym clothes might be more important. If you exercise before work, how will you ensure you’ll get up in time, and with enough sleep? Do you need to fill up your car’s gas tank after work so you don’t have to do it in the morning before going to the gym? Better yet if you can turn all of these solutions into a series of habits. 

By extension, then, talking with your clients about planning the things they need to do around exercise rather than focusing on the exercise itself might be really helpful. 

To sum it up, the best ways to translate intention into action will differ between people, but arming yourself with the knowledge that (a) people seem less likely to follow through on short-term commitments, (b) sometimes less (intensity) is more and (c) that focusing on a plan for how to get yourself to the gym is just as if not more important than what you’ll do when you get there could be a serious game changer for you and your clients. 

Exploring further 

If you’re interested in the relationship between psychology and physiology, consider pursuing these ACSM CEC courses: