• Psychology of Movement
    Are your goals approach or avoidance oriented?
  • Approach or avoidance goals
  • When people are asked why they exercise, they tend to describe something they want to get out of it, for example: “to get fitter”, “to lose weight”, “to increase my energy levels”, or “to improve my health.”

    You will notice that all of those examples are centered around getting hold of a good thing or making progress in a positive direction. Those kinds of goals or outcomes are considered “approach-oriented”, because they are about approaching/moving towards something we want.

    However, we can also have “avoidance-oriented” goals, which is when we are motivated by trying to avoid something we don’t want. For instance, for some people exercise may be about “avoiding my health deteriorating further”, “avoiding gaining weight” or “not feeling so bad about myself.”

    What’s better: approach or avoidance goals?

    It’s normal to have a mix of both - research has shown that these two types of goals are independent. This means they are not opposite ends of a single spectrum but separate constructs. However, if your goals lean too much towards the avoidance side, or there are avoidance motives that you are unaware of, exercise can be harder and less enjoyable.

    This is because avoidance-oriented goals can cause you to worry about the outcome you are trying to avoid. You can be more sensitive to cues and “threats” that relate to that unwanted outcome. This results in exercise being more stressful and an overall more negative experience.

    However if you adopt more approach-focused goals, then you will have in mind the positive outcomes you would like to achieve. Your efforts tend to be more specific to those outcomes, and the behaviour becomes more satisfying because you know it is taking you towards what you want.

    What’s more, sometimes what appears to be an approach goal on the surface can be underpinned by a number of avoidance goals. For example, you may sign up to a 5km run through work which is driven by wanting to improve your fitness (an approach goal). But underneath that may be a string of avoidance goals such as “I want to stop feeling fat”, “I don’t want people to judge me as being unfit”, “I don’t want to come last”, “I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of my colleagues”.

    As we said, it’s normal to have a mix of both approach and avoidance aspects to your goals. Avoidance goals can be useful sometimes if you can use them to drive your behaviour in a positive direction. However, the important thing is that any avoidance goals are paired with approach goals to provide balance. It is better to focus on the positive things you want from life, than solely on the things you want to avoid.

    When setting goals for exercise, consider these areas to support more approach-focused goals:

    • Meaningful: make sure your goal is aligned with your values
    • Adaptive: consider whether your goal will improve your life in some way?
    • Benefits: what would be the most positive outcome of achieving your goal?
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