The way you declare a fitness goal could make or break your chances of keeping it, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Instead of saying, “I will get up each day at 5 a.m.,” for example, personal trainers can turn it into a question, such as, “Will you get up each day at 5 a.m.?” and you’ll have a better chance of actually working out.

The phenomenon is called the “question-behavior effect,” and the technique can influence your future actions, says Dave Sprott, co-author of the study and senior associate dean of the Carson College of Business at Washington State University.

Personal trainers and gym staff can help people exercise more by utilizing this technique. AudienceSCAN found 47.9% of U.S. adults set personal goals to get more exercise this year.

Questions remind a person of prior failures to perform a behavior, as well as social norms associated with the behavior, says Sprott. “The disconnect between what you have done and what you know you should do elicits dissonance, which in turn leads to a behavioral response,” he says.

Questions also activate an intention that can guide behavior by enhancing your commitment to perform a certain action. You’ll be motivated to stick with the new behavior to alleviate feelings of discomfort that will exist if you don’t comply.

Fitness centers can even use this question technique in advertising messages. AudienceSCAN reports 14.8% of More Exercise Seekers think TV is the best source for health/medical information, so use spots wisely.

The process is relatively simple, yet it’s an effective technique to produce consistent, significant changes across a wide domain of behaviors, says Sprott. “It is pretty easy to ask a question,” he says, adding that it just takes one. “Many of the studies in our meta-analysis report changes in behavior after a single question is answered.”

How To Form The Question

Some questions are more successful than others, and the study found that two rules were helpful:

Rule No. 1: The effect is strongest when questions are used to encourage behavior with personal and socially accepted norms, such as eating healthy, volunteering, or recycling.

Rule No. 2: Questions that can be answered with a response of “yes” or “no” also elicit a stronger response than questions that can have multiple answers or answers based on a ranking system (likely, somewhat likely, etc.)

Using Questions To Influence Others

The question-behavior effect can also be used to influence someone else’s behavior. “While more research is required, one preliminary finding is that anonymity may increase the effectiveness of questioning,” says Sprott. His report found that the question-behavior effect is strongest when questions are administered via a computer or paper-and-pencil survey. A personal trainer could use the technique to change client behavior.

You could add a question on the fitness evaluation about whether a person will perform or not perform a behavior critical to achieving the goal of exercising more. “The research suggests that those questioned would perform the associated behavior in terms of what societal norms suggest.”

AudienceSCAN data is available as part of a subscription to AdMall for Agencies, or with the SalesFuel API. Media companies can access AudienceSCAN data through the AudienceSCAN Reports in AdMall.