They began recruiting 20 overweight, adult men and women who were initially inactive but healthy enough to run. They equipped the volunteers with activity trackers and asked them to continue their normal lives for two weeks while the researchers set their base step counts, which turned out to be an average of around 5,000 steps per day.
Then the researchers had the volunteers download a phone app that sent them individual step count goals each day. Goals randomly ranged from the same number of steps someone took at the start of their studies to 2.6 times as many. Participants may aim for their normal 5,000 steps one day and 13,000 the next day.
The experiment lasted 80 days. Then the researchers compared people’s daily goals, achievements, and the resulting overall activity levels. And they found that on days when they were asked to walk more, people walked significantly more; If the goals exceeded the number of basic steps people took, they were more active, even if the goals were quite ambitious.
But few people reached the goals with the highest step count, often lagging far behind, and generally walking little more than – or even less – than on days when the goals were more moderate. In essence, goals that people nearly got seemed most effective at getting and keeping them moving.
Of course, this was a small, short-term study that didn’t ask directly about people’s motivations or whether they felt demoralized for not completing these 13,000 steps. It also included walking, which is not everyone’s favorite exercise, and steps that some people may not have the desire or technology to count. (Almost all cell phones have accelerometers that count steps for you, or you can buy inexpensive pedometers.)
However, the results contain useful advice for anyone looking to get more active this year. “Set precise, dynamic goals that are not too simple, but realistic,” says Dr. Chevance. Perhaps check the Activity app on your phone for the past month to see how much you’ve run and add “10 percent,” a goal for this week, a plan that will put you at about your current value Take 500 steps a day Life is similar to that of a volunteer.
Update this goal “at least every week” by increasing steps – or time, or distance – whenever you are slightly above your goal, and dropping the bar a little if you stay low. “When you are close,” he says with a goal that is still a little further away, “you are on the right track.”