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Health Impact of Goal Setting

Article by Dr Martie Conradie, MBChB (UP), Diploma in Child Health (SA), Diploma in HIV Management (SA)

How often do you set goals? How often do you revisit your list? And how are those New Year’s resolutions going?

Setting goals has many advantages for you and your health, but if you do not take care, it can affect you negatively too…let us look at it to ensure you make healthy choices.

We often do not realise how important setting goals is and that the advantages do not always lie in attaining them.

A study done to analyse New Year’s goals claims that only 8% of people achieve them which means that 92% end in failure.

Goal setting has been suggested as an important strategy for behaviour change and has been proven to be effective in changing physical activity and dietary behaviour. It is then definitely needed in the society we live in today where so many people struggle to live a healthy lifestyle.

Elements of your physical and mental health are often what you want to improve by setting goals, but these aspects can also be affected in unplanned ways when setting and working towards those goals.


Impact of setting goals on health

Mental health

Good effects on mental health

What a sense of accomplishment it is when you reach a goal!

Mental health must be cherished, especially in society today where life is fast-paced and threats, such as the fear of COVID-19, hang over us. Some of the benefits of goal setting which are related to your mental well-being include:

  • Triggering of new behaviour and guiding your focus to sustain the momentum of achieving goals.
  • Promoting a sense of self-mastery.
  • Assisting with identification of what to improve, improving it, and then measuring the improvement.
  • Mobilising energy which leads to higher levels of effort and in turn to persistent effort.
  • Feeling satisfied and motivated which improves mental health in general.
  • Creating a sense of commitment and acceptance.


Goal setting, under the right conditions, can be a very powerful technique to improve mental health according to research.

A study looking at the perceived barriers to goal setting to improve mental health among depressed older people found that the barriers included:

  • Psychological barriers such as social attitudes, beliefs about depression and stigmas
  • Logistical barriers such as transport or availability of services
  • Illness-related barriers such as depression severity and anxiety
  • Feelings that overcoming these barriers will be burdensome


When the people who reported those barriers were taken through the process of good goal setting and mentored while working towards those goals, it was found that setting goals was shown to improve the outcome in treatment despite initial perceived barriers. It allowed the depressed elderly people to start feeling in control of their well-being again.

The process of goal setting has even become a focus in several types of psychotherapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Problem-Solving Therapy.

Bad effects on mental health

So, if setting goals is as good as mentioned above, why do many sources actually discourage setting goals?

Researchers have also found that the motivational impact of goals may be affected by your belief that you can achieve something. If you believe that you cannot achieve something, you might miss out on the motivational impact of goals and it can even lead to feelings of disheartenment or it can strengthen your belief that you cannot do something.

Not accomplishing a goal will likely lead to frustration in every person and unfortunately this may be very hard to process for someone who has had many recent feelings of failure.

An interesting bad “side effect” which has been produced by goal setting programmes before included a rise in unethical behaviour! Two different types of cheating behaviour have been identified which relates to goal setting. Firstly, people may choose to use unethical methods to reach their goal. This is more common when goals are set in the workplace and it is linked to rewards. Secondly, it can motivate people to rather misrepresent their performance than to admit that they fell short. Lying and cheating result in feelings of guilt which has a disastrous impact on mental health.

The last thing to be aware of is that the intense focus on reaching a goal can blind you to important issues appearing unrelated to the goal.

Physical health

The effects on physical health can be directly related to the outcome of a goal, such as when a lower weight is achieved after a diet. It is however important to be aware that setting goals can have indirect effects without you realising it, such as higher levels of stress leading to raised blood pressure.

Good effects on physical health

Healthy ageing and the promoting of improved health of older people became a key policy initiative of the World Health Organization in 2012. Research into innovative goal setting approaches became a focus point for many institutions. Goal setting was found to be a useful process for people to alter their lifestyle allowing them to age better and to reduce risk factors associated with dementia.

This alone should be a good reason for you to keep setting goals. Who does not want to stay healthy while aging?

Setting goals was also found to be a very cost-effective way of improving physical health for various conditions such as losing weight in obese people, improving blood glucose control in diabetics or assisting with recovery after cardiac surgery.

One more thing to consider is that many people have noted benefits for their family and friends who were not directly involved in the goal setting process or achieving the goals. Husbands following the same diets because of changes in the wives’ cooking habits lost weight too or relationships improved because the person working towards achieving their goals was being more positive and inspired.

Bad effects on physical health

The unhealthy effects of goal setting on your physical well-being might not be clear and not much research has been done to analyse it.

One thing to remember is that the goals you set should be modified to include your current physical health to prevent harm. For example, if your goal is to run a marathon, but you have knee problems, it is advised that you first visit your doctor to ensure that your exercise programme will not result in the worsening of your condition.

Anxiety and guilt about not reaching goals can result in symptoms such as gut issues or headaches. The answer to this probably lies in following a good goal setting process and to take note of changes in your health after making a lifestyle change or when focusing on attaining a goal.


Why set goals if they can be bad?

To be clear, the possible negative outcomes occur most often because of following an incorrect strategy for goal setting.

The health benefits can far outweigh the risks if a good strategy is followed.


Failing to meet goals: What now?

One inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain functions. To protect itself, your brain is resistant to change. Therefore, any goals requiring substantial behavioural changes, will be resisted. Your brain seeks rewards and avoidance of discomfort or fear. Feelings such as the fear of failure therefore become a demotivator and your brain wants to force you into the direction of the more comfortable behaviour. Understanding this might help to limit feeling anxious about goals or feeling guilty if you were unable to achieve them. So, blame your brain a little.

You also cannot control all the environmental variables to guarantee 100% success but try not to let that lead to avoiding setting new, more attainable goals to achieve a healthier and happier you.


Practical tips to improve goal setting and staying focused

There are so many recommendations. You probably have come across some of them if you have ever been part of a team-building session or business strategy meeting.

A very common recommendation is to have SMART goals, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Write your goals down while you think and have a look at some internet sources to guide you through these principles.

After defining your goals, the last step in setting them is to accept them. If you do not truly accept a goal it could keep you from succeeding.

I would advise getting a mentor or someone who could help you with accomplishing your goals from the time you set them. This could alleviate some of the possible negative effects which result from feeling anxious or demotivated.

After setting the goals, the challenge is to stay motivated. These tips can help:

  • If you are struggling, break the big goals into smaller ones
  • Reward yourself (preferably in healthy ways)
  • Share your accomplishments with friends and family, but be careful to share comments on social media, as some people who might not even know you well, could say exactly what you do NOT need to hear
  • Monitor your progress and set up daily or weekly reminders
  • Use visual reminders, such as a photo of the vacation destination you want to go to with a few less kilos


Remember, you can enjoy the road towards reaching a goal even if it is hard. If you are positive, the direct and indirect effects on your health are likely to be great.

Goal setting can also be a wonderful journey of self-discovery even after abandoning your initial goals. Frequently revisit your life goals and update them, but you do not have to live every single moment of your life planned out since we all need those days when you have nothing to accomplish. You might, however, enjoy relaxing even more if you have clearly defined goals.

May you all become great goal setters and see a positive impact on your physical and mental well-being.