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How to Achieve Sustainable Behavior Change

Starting a new diet or exercise routine is not an unfamiliar task to a lot of people. The start of a new year calls for a New Year’s resolution, and that resolution a lot of times centers around health. You vow to eat clean, stick to a regular exercise routine, and shed a few pounds. It’s a new year and a new me; it’s going to be different this time, you tell yourself. Your mission to fix your health habits starts off strong. For the first 2 weeks, you cut out fast food and junk food completely. You work out 5 times a week. Life is looking great and you can picture a new, healthy you at the end of the tunnel already. But once the 3rd week hit, you decided to cut yourself some slack; you reward yourself with a cheat meal and give yourself an extra day off from the gym. The 4th week comes and the idea of a new and healthier you isn’t as enticing as it used to sound. You give yourself a few more cheat meals and decided to take a few more days off from exercising; I’ll just make it up next week. Eventually those cheat meals turned into cheat days, and those days off from exercising became weeks. Does this sound familiar?

Many of us have no issue starting a new behavior, but maintaining that behavior change is the challenging part. Going back to the above situation, the way you may have went about your behavior change had initially set you up for failure. Your motivation wasn’t necessarily the culprit; rather, you may have attempted to take on too much all at once. Your goals weren’t SMART (we’ll discuss this later) and you weren’t prepared for relapses or failure. Throughout this blog, we’ll be sharing a few tips on how to achieve sustainable behavior change.

1. Set SMART Goals.

SMART is an acronym that is used to guide goal setting by helping you clarify your ideas, focus your efforts, and use your time and resources productively. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Specific. Having a clear and concise goal helps you better focus your efforts and help make it appear more attainable. Whereas a broad goal, such as “I want to lose weight”, may appear overwhelming as it doesn’t take into account the importance of this goal and the resources available to you to achieve this goal. You may be lost on where to start if your goal isn’t specific enough. When creating your goal, considering these 5 “W” questions may help your goal be as specific as possible:

· What do I want to accomplish?

· Why is this goal important?

· Who is involved?

· Where is it located?

· Which resources or limits are involved?

Measurable. Having a measurable goal means that you should be able to track your progress while trying to achieve this goal. Being able to assess progress helps you stay focused, keeps you motivated, and can sometimes help you reevaluate your goals if you aren’t seeing progress. It’s hard to visualize a goal sometimes, so having a physical form of measurement makes your goal appear more tangible and achievable. A measurable goal should address questions such as:

· How much?

· How many?

· How will I know when it is accomplished?

A goal such as “I want to lose 5 pounds by the end of this month” can be measured using a scale. In another example, a goal such as “I want to drink 8 cups of water a day” can be measured by keeping track of how many cups of water is consumed each day.

Attainable. An attainable goal is realistic, but most importantly, ask yourself if it’s realistic to you. The goal should be moderately challenging, but still remain possible for you to achieve. A goal such as “I want to lose 2 pounds a week” may be realistic, but if losing 2 pounds a week means being in a caloric deficit of 1,000 calories based on your body composition, then it might not actually be realistic to your lifestyle. An attainable goal should ask:

· How realistic is the goal, based on other constraints (e.g. financial factors)?

I once had a goal to eat “cleaner” and I went about this goal in a way that wasn’t realistic to my lifestyle, culture, and personal preferences. I’m Vietnamese and rice is a staple in every meal I eat; removing rice form my diet completely was not realistic to my lifestyle, based off of how my culture and background has shaped my eating habits. So ask yourself again, is it actually realistic to you?

Relevant. A relevant goal is a goal that matters to you and aligns with your values. A relevant goal can answer “yes” to these questions:

· Does this seem worthwhile?

· Is this the right time?

· Is it applicable in the current socio-economic environment?

A relevant goal should especially be attainable given your current circumstances. Using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example, if you want to lose weight but the pandemic is disrupting your exercise routine and eating habits, know that it’s completely okay to save this goal for another time in your life. The goal may not be relevant to you right now and that’s okay!

Time-bound. Setting a target date for your goal helps you have a deadline to focus on and work towards. A time-bound goal may consider these questions:

· When do I start?

· When should this be completed by?

2. Celebrate small successes.

Sometimes we’re so focused on the big picture that we often forget to celebrate the small successes along the way. Give yourself some credit for starting a new behavior or goal! Rather than looking at how far away you are from your goal—which can be overwhelming and discouraging sometimes—compare the current you to the past you; acknowledge the progress you’ve made, even if you think it wasn’t much. No progress is too small, some progress is still progress.

Behavior is more likely to be sustained if it provides immediate satisfaction and outcomes rather than long-term, rational outcomes. If you consider yourself to be more extrinsically motivated (motivation driven by external factors such as rewards and praise) then consider giving yourself a treat for your success. Immediate changes in behavior are often motivated by extrinsic motivation, but intrinsic motivation (motivation driven by interest and enjoyment without external rewards) has been hypothesized to have a stronger influence on behavior maintenance. Although intrinsic motivation has a stronger influence, extrinsically motivated behavior often develops intrinsic features over time. (Kwasnicka, Dombrowski, White, & Sniehotta, 2016). If you’re like me, rewarding yourself with a new gym outfit after hitting your personal record on that bench press may help you stay motivated.

3. Accept failure and prepare for relapses.

Failure never feels good, but instead of viewing failure as a purely negative experience, we can reframe how we see failure into a positive one. None of us are perfect; failure is completely normal and sometimes necessary to our growth. We often get so caught up in the idea of failing that we try to brush it aside or give up pursuing our goal altogether. Instead, failures and setbacks can help us refocus our attention on areas we need to work on; take it as a learning experience instead. Once you set your failures in front of you and examine why you failed, you can then prepare for potential relapses. Never assume that the road towards your goal isn’t going to be slightly rocky; always have a backup plan for when you encounter those obstructions in your path!

4. Increase your self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s own capabilities to successfully complete a task. Individuals with high self-efficacy are more likely to choose challenging tasks, display maximal effort when making a behavior change, and overcome obstacles and challenges while continuing to pursue their goals. Setting SMART goals, celebrating small successes, and preparing for relapses are all ways you can help build your self-efficacy. And if you’re still not convinced that you’re capable of achieving your goals, fake it till you make it. Whenever you find yourself sinking in self-doubt and negative criticisms, catch those thoughts before you drown in them. Turn those can’ts into cans; work on rephrasing negative thoughts into positive affirmations. As you work on building your self-efficacy to better accomplish your goals, also acknowledge that your social environment can either assist you or hinder you during this process. Social persuasion is powerful; surround yourself with people who believe you can succeed!


Kwasnicka, D., Dombrowski, S. U., White, M., & Sniehotta, F. (2016). Theoretical explanations for maintenance of behaviour change: a systematic review of behaviour theories. Health psychology review, 10(3), 277-296.

Skinner, J. S., Bryant, C. X., Merrill, S., & Green, D. J. (2015). ACE® medical exercise specialist manual: The definitive resource for health and fitness professionals working with special populations. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise.

SMART Goals: How to Make Your Goals Achievable. (n.d.).

Cindy Bui holds a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology with a specialization in fitness. She holds certifications such as Certified Group Fitness Instructor, Certified Gravity Ball Instructor, and Certified Remedial Exercise Consultant. Cindy hopes to share her passion for health and fitness by shedding awareness on evidence-based nutrition and exercise.

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