WASHINGTON — A new study, done at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania revealed that when people set their own exercise goals — and then pursue them immediately — it’s more likely to result in lasting positive changes.

The findings of the study titled “Effect of Goal-Setting Approaches Within a Gamification Intervention to Increase Physical Activity Among Economically Disadvantaged Adults at Elevated Risk for Major Adverse Cardiovascular Events” were published in the journal “JAMA Cardiology.”

The results of this research are significant because they were found among an underserved population that is at particularly high risk of having or developing heart conditions.

“Most behavior change programs involve goal-setting, but the best way to design that process is unknown,” said Mitesh Patel, lead author, M.D., M.B.A., an associate professor of Medicine at Penn and vice president for Clinical Transformation at Ascension.

“Our clinical trial demonstrated that physical activity increased the most when patients chose their goals rather than being assigned them, and when the goals started immediately rather than starting lower and gradually increasing over time.”

This study consisted of 500 patients from low-income neighborhoods, mainly in West Philadelphia but also elsewhere in and outside the city.

Participants either had cardiovascular disease or were assessed to have a near 10 percent risk of developing one within a decade.

Patel’s previous work at the Penn Medicine Nudge Unit often focused on gamification, a concept used to create behavioral change by turning it into a game.

As with past studies, every participant was given a wearable step tracker that recorded their daily step counts through Penn’s Way to Health platform.

But in this study, the main outcomes were less about participation in the games and more about how goals were established.

Once every participant got their wearable step counter, they were randomly assigned to the control group, which didn’t have step goals or games attached or one of the gaming groups with goals.

Those in the gamified group went through two other sets of random assignments. One determined whether they’d have input on their step goal or whether they’d just be assigned a standard one.

The second decided whether each participant would immediately start working toward their goals (for the entire 16-week intervention) or whether they’d ramp up to it, with minor increases in goals, until the full goals kicked in at week nine.

After analyzing the results, the researchers saw that the group which chose their own goals achieved significant increases in the activity.

They had the highest average increase in their steps compared to the group with no goals, roughly 1,384 steps per day. And, the study also measured periods of sustained, high activity, amounting to an average increase of 4.1 minutes daily.

However, those who were assigned their goals only increased their daily steps above the control group’s average by between 500 and 600 steps.

“Individuals who select their own goals are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to follow through on them,” said Kevin Volpp, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics.

“They feel like the goal is theirs, and this likely enables greater engagement.”

Participants kept their activity trackers, and in the eight weeks following the intervention, the group that chose their goals and started immediately kept up their progress.

“It is exciting to see that the group that increased their activity levels by the most steps maintained those levels during follow-up,” said Patel.

“This indicates that gamification with self-chosen and immediate goals helped these patients form a new habit.”

“Goal-setting is a fundamental element of almost every physical activity program, whether through a smartphone app or in a workplace wellness program,” said Volpp.

“Our findings reveal a simple approach that could be used to improve the impact of these programs and the health of their patients.”

(With inputs from ANI)

Edited by Ojaswin Kathuria and Nikita Nikhil

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