Read time: 6 min.
Issue 13 * 24 February 2024

Long-Term Commitments: How to Align Aspirations with Actions Effectively

It’s that time of year when people think about how they can make healthy changes to their lifestyles and create new routines. One common goal is to be (more) physically active or to start going to the gym.

Dr Nikita Rowley

Share this article

Understanding the Intention-Behaviour Gap

The benefits of being physically active are well established. We all know we should be physically active; we can intend to be active, but sometimes we don’t follow through with the action of being active for various reasons. We’ve all been there; we plan to go to the gym, but after a busy day, we end up sacrificing our trip to the gym to relax and unwind.

We can all have the best intentions to do something, but typically, external factors can influence that decision; for example, this might include getting home late from work due to traffic on the roads, and then not wanting to go back out to the gym, especially in the winter with the darker evenings. Internal factors also play a part in this - maybe feeling tired or demotivated after a busy day, and would rather go home, eat some dinner, and relax watching that bingeable TV series everyone is talking about. When an individual does have the best intentions to do something but fails to enact that behaviour, this is known as the intention-behaviour gap.

The intention-behaviour gap is a well-known theory in psychology. Understanding this theory is one thing but trying to overcome this can be more complex. So how can we encourage ourselves to follow through with our intentions? This is particularly important at this time of year when many people have developed resolutions and have the intention of sticking to them.

Strategies for Sustainable Habit Formation

It is all about creating a habit – in the ideal world, people set goals with the intention of changing their behaviour (such as stopping smoking) or taking up a new healthy behaviour (such as going to the gym). You cannot expect to be able to keep up this new behaviour without the support of various techniques; but what techniques can help people keep their goals? There are some easy ways to encourage you to stick to your aspirations:

Setting realistic goals – so your goal is to start being more physically active, but how do you plan to do this in reality? Think about the level of physical activity you want to do regularly – you want to make this realistic, so start small and build it up. Begin with what seems realistic to you, then each week try to increase this slightly. So maybe you go for a walk 3 times a week for 30 minutes; then the following week maybe increase the time spent walking to 45 minutes (15-minute increase) or increase the number of walks to 4 per week. Do what seems realistic to you. There is no point starting off by saying you plan to go on a daily walk when in reality, you might not have the time to.

Consistency – when doing research on improving health or increasing physical activity levels, you have probably come across the term ‘consistency’ – it is everywhere! This is for a good reason; you need to be realistic in the goals you set with the focus of being consistent. Resolutions shouldn’t just be for Spring but should focus on changing your behaviour for the long term. Therefore, it is important to set goals that focus on being consistent. For example, when setting goals that focus on lifting weights to build muscle, there is no point in planning to lift weights this week, but then not doing anything to build muscles for weeks on end – make sure you are consistent in your efforts.

Making Enjoyment a Part of Your Routine

Doing something you enjoy – another key tip is to focus on activities you enjoy. For some people, going into a gym can be a daunting thing – terrifying for some! They might be scared of being judged, not having the physique they wish they had, or embarrassed to ask for help. With this mindset, they are set up to fail. Therefore, it is important to find activities that you enjoy – this could be taking the dog for a long walk, going for a run with friends, arranging to go to a fitness class where you can meet other people, or arranging to go play badminton with a family member. Some people do like the social element of being physically active, meeting new people and socialising whilst getting fit. For others, they would prefer to do this alone which is also fine! Some individuals enjoy exercising from the comfort of their own home – this could be by exercising whilst watching YouTube fitness videos, exercising in their home gym or garden, or going to the gym on their own and zoning out and focusing on their goals. Whatever you enjoy, use that to your advantage! Being physically active doesn’t have to be unenjoyable – make it fun, make it social (if you like being with other people) and be consistent.