Goal setting as a strategy for dietary and physical activity behavior change: a review of the literature

Am J Health Promot. 2004 Nov-Dec;19(2):81-93. doi: 10.4278/0890-1171-19.2.81.


Objective: Estimate effectiveness of goal setting for nutrition and physical activity behavior change, review the effect of goal-setting characteristics on behavior change, and investigate effectiveness of interventions containing goal setting.

Data source: For this review, a literature search was conducted for the period January 1977 through December 2003 that included a Current Contents, Biosis Previews, Medline, PubMed, PsycINFO, and ERIC search of databases and a reference list search. Key words were goal, goal setting, nutrition, diet, dietary, physical activity, exercise, behavior change, interventions, and fitness.

Study inclusion and exclusion criteria: The search identified 144 studies, of which 28 met inclusion criteria for being published in a peer reviewed journal and using goal setting in an intervention to modify dietary or physical activity behaviors. Excluded from this review were those studies that (1) evaluated goal setting cross-sectionally without an intervention; (2) used goal setting for behavioral disorders, to improve academic achievement, or in sports performance; (3) were reviews.

Data extraction and synthesis: The articles were categorized by target audience and secondarily by research focus. Data extracted included outcome measure, research rating, purpose, sample, sample description, assignment, findings, and goal-setting support.

Results: Thirteen of the 23 adult studies used a goal-setting effectiveness study design and eight produced positive results supporting goal setting. No adolescent or child studies used this design. The results were inconclusive for the studies investigating goal-setting characteristics (n = 7). Four adult and four child intervention evaluation studies showed positive outcomes. No studies reported power calculations, and only 32% of the studies were rated as fully supporting goal setting.

Conclusions: Goal setting has shown some promise in promoting dietary and physical activity behavior change among adults, but methodological issues still need to be resolved. The literature with adolescents and children is limited, and the authors are not aware of any published studies with this audience investigating the independent effect of goal setting on dietary or physical activity behavior. Although, goal setting is widely used with children and adolescents in nutrition interventions, its effectiveness has yet to be reported.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diet*
  • Goals*
  • Health Behavior*
  • Health Promotion
  • Humans
  • Physical Fitness*
  • Risk Reduction Behavior