One of the most popular resolutions this time of year is to exercise more

Exercise Goals

Increasing physical activity and making a promise to improve your health is a worthy goal but it can be more challenging than expected. Brandon Alderman, an associate professor and the vice chair of education and administration in the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, provides some tips for setting realistic exercise goals that could also have a positive impact on your mental health.

What are some of the mental and/or emotional benefits of making a resolution to exercise more?  

“There are probably numerous benefits of making an initial goal or resolution to exercise, but one that might be critical to our understanding of exercise behavior itself is the impact of the resolution on one's intention to exercise,” Alderman said.  “A number of theories in exercise psychology, including those that have been in vogue for many years, imply that intentions to exercise are one of the strongest predictors of whether a person is likely to actually engage in exercise, so it is possible that the resolution might just increase one's intention to exercise.”  

In addition, Alderman said people from all walks of life also experience a number of barriers towards exercise, and setting a resolution may be an important strategy to help recognize or bring awareness to these perceived exercise barriers. “While goal-setting may not necessarily have a long-term impact on exercise behavior, there are likely to be several short-term benefits of resolutions on the initial decision to become more active.”

How does exercise impact the brain and/or a person’s mental health? 

Exercise favorably influences mental health and cognitive function, ranging from the social and environmental (social support, social interactions), to psychological (self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, distraction from daily life stressors), to neurobiological (changes in key brain neurotransmitters, stress response systems, and structural and functional brain changes), Alderman said.

“In my lab, we study the impact of exercise on cognition and emotion, particularly among individuals suffering from mental health disorders,” Alderman said.  “In general, we have found that exercise improves select aspects of cognition while reducing symptoms of depression, although the observed improvements in cognition do not necessarily mediate or cause the improvements in depressive symptoms.”

Do you any tips for setting successful resolutions?

“I think a more manageable approach would be to set a goal of putting on your workout clothes after you get home from work at least three days out of the workweek for the next three months,” Alderman suggested. “This is a specific and measurable goal that has a focused time frame and might increase your exercise behavior across the first three months of the year.”

He said the more people can think of exercise as a habit, or simply as a part of their daily routine, the better off they are.

“I have a word that I often say to myself when I go to work out – unapologetic. We are all busy, and saying this word either silently or aloud helps to remind me that I should be allowed to fit exercise into my daily routine without feeling guilty or without having to apologize for the amount of time I spend exercising. It seems like a small gesture, but it really is liberating.  Lastly, I would really just encourage people to do physical activities or exercise they enjoy the most. You are much more likely to accomplish a goal when it is tied to an activity that you enjoy.”