6 tips for making a healthy New Year’s resolution… and for making it stick

January 1st is the perfect time to make a resolution about the coming year. Here's how to make a resolution that'll stick.
January 1st is the perfect time to make a resolution about the coming year. Here’s how to make a resolution that’ll stick.

Four years ago, I turned my health and fitness around, and it all started with a New Year’s Resolution (“no more McDonald’s”). Since January of 2009, I’ve completely overhauled my lifestyle.

As January 1, 2013 approaches, there will inevitably be folks out there who want to make their own healthy New Year’s resolutions. Here are 5 tips for making a great healthy New Year’s Resolution, and for making it stick.

1. Decide why you want to make a change.

Sure, everyone has ideas about the better person they’d like to be. But having an idea isn’t the same thing as having motivation. For a long time, I wanted to get skinnier, but it took truly understanding how my fitness level (or lack thereof) was impacting my health, and why I needed to make a change, to get me to actually dedicate to change. This January, don’t just wish you were healthier, decide that you want or need to be healthier, and what you might be missing out on if you’re not. This will also help you anticipate the reasons why you haven’t been pursuing a healthier lifestyle already, and what obstacles life might throw at you in the coming year.

I guarantee that this deep understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing will get you through those days when the process of getting healthier just kinda sucks.

2. Set a specific goal.

While “getting healthy” or “losing weight” are great goals, they are non-specific, vague goals. Without parameters for success or failure, there’s no way to monitor progress to determine whether or not you’re actually getting healthier or losing weight, and no way to know when you’ve arrived. Without that feeling of progress, most people become discouraged and give up. So, rather than to set vague goals, set specific ones: goals with numbers are the best. Set a goal to lose 10 lbs, or better yet, set a functional goal: to run 1 mile in under 9 minutes, to bench press your body weight, or to do 10 pull-ups without stopping.

3. Set a single goal.

Swept up in the season, New Year’s Resolutioners tend to try and change everything, and all at once. For most people, this is an unsustainable amount of change. If you’ve spent the last year living one kind of lifestyle, it can be a shock to try and change your whole life in a day. Getting healthy is a marathon, not a sprint. Rather than to resolve to cut out all fast food, eat more veggies, exercise 45 minutes a day, AND bike to work, pick one of these resolutions and let yourself slide on the others (for now). For me, it was choosing to tackle my fast food habit; for you, it might be that, or to resolve to exercise regularly, or to eliminate desserts three times a week.

Even though it might feel like setting the bar lower, what you’re actually doing is training the mental discipline it takes to make a lifestyle change. Upon achieving your first goal, you’ll find that setting and achieving the second goal (without losing the progress you’ve made with your first goal) will be much easier because now you’re used to what it takes to change your life.

4. Keep it simple.

Most beginners overestimate their own fitness level and underestimate how difficult it is to get back in shape. So, don’t bite off more than you can chew; setting too lofty a goal is an easy way to get discouraged and give up. If you haven’t been active all year and would like to get back in shape, set a goal of going for a short walk after dinner 2x or 3x a week. If you eat cake every night after dinner, set a goal of having a piece of fruit for dessert instead 3x a week rather than quitting cold turkey. If you want to eat more veggies, set a goal of having salad twice a week for lunch, rather than to go vegan over-night. Setting simple goals, ones that aren’t too disruptive of your every day life, will help you integrate the new habits into your day-to-day activities without shocking your system. It also reduces the chances that you’ll fall off the wagon early and call it quits.

For me, I found that setting a concrete goal of eliminating McDonald’s from my diet — but not worrying about the rest of my diet yet — was the perfect “baby step” to getting me used to thinking about my diet and making conscious choices about it. Once I was used to thinking about, and saying no to, McDonald’s, it was simple to cut almost all fast food from my diet entirely.

5. Set a time frame and reassess.

For all resolutions, it can be helpful to set a time frame for how long you’re going to try your new resolution. If you’ve resolved to hit the gym 3x a week, commit to doing it for a month or two without cheating. Having a time frame will augment that sense of progress because every day that passes is a day that brings you closer to your goal.

Further, reaching your goal time frame isn’t an opportunity to fall off the wagon; it’s a pre-determined time to take a second look at your goals, reassess whether it’s too disruptive (or maybe not challenging enough) and to set a new set of goals. It might be that after a month, you’ll realize that going to the gym 3x a week isn’t sustainable given babysitting costs; this is a perfect time to modify your goals so that more of your workouts can take place at home with the kids. Or, you might find that you can handle 3x a week of going to the gym, and now you want to set a more challenging goal of spending 20 minutes of that time lifting weights. Setting a time frame when you start gives you the perfect chance to modify your goals after having spent some time trying your new lifestyle.

6. Write it down.

By this, I mean plan it all out. Write a letter or a note to yourself outlining what you want to do, how you plan on doing it, and what you hope to get out of this whole experience. This helps make the whole experience feel real, and will turn it into a commitment to yourself. You can choose to carry your resolution with you, or you can choose to leave it at the bottom of a pile of papers on your desk; the important part is writing it down.

There’s conflicting ideas out there about telling other folks about your resolutions (as opposed to keeping it to yourself). It can be helpful to tell folks because they can help support you in the process of changing your lifestyle (e.g. if you need your family to know you plan on hitting the gym more so they can watch your kids or something). On the other hand, for many people, the immediate reward of having other people praise you for making a resolution can undermine their interest in the praise they’ll receive for having actually achieved the reward, making it ultimately easier to cheat and/or give up.

Personally, I’ve found it easiest to let my family know about resolutions, but to not publicize to friends. I think this will vary from person to person. But, either way, the important thing is to make a promise yourself, not anyone else.

BONUS: 7. Make non-New Years’ Resolutions

New Years’ is a great time to make resolutions, but there’s no reason why it has to be the only time to change your life. As I wrote above, getting healthier is a marathon, not a sprint. Making a small change in January is only going to prepare you for the next step in February or March. Be prepared to be constantly in the cycle of assessing your life, resolving to change something, making a plan, and pursuing that goal. In other words, resolutions are a year-round thing. January 1st is just the first step.

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