Conflicted Goal Engagement: Undermining Physical Activity and Health in Late Life

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Pursuing health goals in very old age is a challenging task that may be undermined by conflicted goal engagement involving mismatched primary (behavior-focused) and secondary (motivation-focused) control striving. Our study explored whether one potentially detrimental combination of control strategies (low primary control/high secondary control) compromised 3-year indicators of everyday physical activity and blood oxygen saturation.


We analyzed data from a representative sample of very old adults (n = 107) using simple slope regression analyses that tested the conditional effects of control striving on everyday physical activity and blood oxygen saturation.


We found a conflicted engagement effect wherein primary control predicted our outcomes only when secondary control was high. The lowest levels of everyday physical activity and blood oxygen saturation were found for older adults high in secondary control but low in primary control. A supplemental mediation analysis suggested everyday physical activity was the mechanism through which conflicted engagement undermined blood oxygen saturation.


Employing health maintenance strategies that promote motivation-focused thinking but discourage goal-directed behaviors (conflicted engagement) may compromise physical activity and health among very old adults. Further research is needed to determine whether control-enhancing interventions promote harmonious goal engagement and better health among these high-risk individuals.

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