By J. E. Hinners, MD MPH
Every new year always presents a wonderful new opportunity to start fresh and revamp your life where it matters.
“Opportunity” would be the key word, however.
Taking advantage of an opportunity that lasts for a whole year (or longer) involves personal vision, choice, and tremendous self-discipline and perseverance.
How many times have you made New Year’s resolutions that began in in the forefront of your daily life only to end up in the dusty backburner of your life?
It’s ok. We all have.
If you’re like any normal person, trying to make a long-lasting change in your life can be hard. And when lofty goals end up neglected and forgotten, it’s easy to beat up on ourselves and even further discourage us from any attempts at reaching towards those goals again.
So how do we make sure that our health and fitness goals are met with enduring success in the new year?
1) Readjust your health goals to make them more lifestyle-oriented rather than “number-oriented”
Was one of your goals to lose 15 pounds? Was one of your goals to go to the gym 4 times per week? Was one of your goals to run 3 laps around the field every day?
Forget the numbers.
I know there will be those who disagree, and I will readily support the notion that setting specific numbers can sometimes help the detail-ridden person more readily measure success or perhaps can help the well-trained athlete to make a faster race time.
This general advice, however, is a bit more specifically for those on opposite extremes of the health and fitness adherence spectrum:
- Those who seriously suffer from lack of personal motivation and discipline in maintaining healthy living habits, and…
- Those who are nearly pathologically obsessed with health and fitness (called “body worshipers” by some) to the point of nearing health disorders such as anorexia, for example.
Scale or mirror?
In my own personal life, I don’t even know my weight unless I happen to be documenting my weight in one of my occasional and odd scientific experiments.
I’d rather use a mirror.
If I started weighing myself on a daily basis, I might find myself starting to get obsessed with a certain number and feeling depressed about my body if I’m even a couple pounds off of that number. Why? Because I error on the side of being obsessed about being healthy and fit.
But weight can fluctuate so easily–even overnight. So why get all upset by nuanced number changes when what matters is general trends?
If I look in the mirror, on the other hand, and start noticing significant changes, then that would remind me and re-motivate me to get back on track with my fitness and healthy diet life choices, in the event that I was sliding in either of those areas.
Why this simple paradigm shift matters
If you focus too much on numbers, typically one of two things will happen: either you will get too discouraged for failing to reach those numbers one day, or else you will get too complacent and backtrack once you finally do reach those numbers.
Why aren’t the numbers always reached?
Because you’re human.
And so am I.
And life happens….
So now when you see that you’ve already “failed” your goals, it’s easier to give in and stop reaching for them.
And on the other hand, what happens when your goal was to lose 15 pounds in the new year, and you amazingly reach that goal by August? Where is the motivation to keep up your healthy lifestyle changes? You’ve just reached your goal, so you should be able to just celebrate and relax now, right?
Or how about if your goal was to go to the gym 4 times per week–and, lo and behold–you’re actually doing that, and it’s September by now… and you’re bored out of your mind!!
Fitness is now a chore for you because you’re stuck with some number routine. So you either grudge and bear it unenthusiastically or else drop it all together because you’ve been meeting your goals but your motivation is totally sapped dry.
What healthy lifestyle goals look like
Healthy lifestyle goals are a little more fluid than number goals. Healthy lifestyle goals are about general patterns and trends, but they allow for human error and allow for a not-quite-as-rigid fitness or diet routine.
Aren’t humans and life more fluid, anyway?
This fluidity within a generally disciplined lifestyle trend matters because it is easier to maintain motivation and perseverance when you don’t view your “falling off the horse” as failing your goals but rather as part of the expected process of going horseback riding.
So you get back on the horse (to risk beating this cliche to death…). It’s just another day horseback riding. No big deal.
No reason to get all upset and discouraged that you’re not meeting your goals. As long as you get back on–then you haven’t failed at meeting your goals yet.
And your horse won’t run away. I promise you.
And the beauty of it all is that when you keep realigning with your lifestyle goals, even after you’ve fallen off, the results you are seeking often naturally follow.
Let’s walk through a concrete example of a healthy lifestyle goal.
Bad example: I’m going to lose 15 pounds this year.
Good example: I’m going to focus on increasing my regular involvement in exercise that most interests me, and I’m going to replace a portion of my current unhealthy eating habits with healthier eating choices. I want to live and maintain an ongoing, healthy lifestyle and not just aim to reach a certain weight.
The good example above doesn’t specify how many days a week you should exercise but just generally states that it needs to be more frequent than your current level of physical activity.
This is great! Because what if one week, you have school exams or an intensive work project?
No problem. So the next week, you can just pick up where you left off without taking a self-beating and chucking the exercise goal altogether.
Another positive point about the good example is that there is some flexibility as to what the exercise should be.
So maybe the first half of the year, you get all gung ho about working out at the gym, but then by July, you start to lose motivation to keep going to the gym.
No problem. No need to toss exercise out the window because you’re bored of the gym.
Just try switching up your exercise type, and maybe you’ll find new motivation playing in an outdoor soccer league instead.
2) Listen to your motivation levels & proactively switch up your exercise routine, if need be
As already mentioned above–if you find you’re getting bored with exercise and losing motivation, listen to yourself and do yourself a favor: switch up your exercise routine.
Maybe that means working out at night instead of the morning–or in the morning instead of at night.
Maybe that means switching from outdoor running to indoor group fitness.
Maybe that means going from solo sports to partner or team sports…or vice versa.
Maybe that means learning a new sport or skill that intrigues or challenges you… (pole dancing, anyone?).
Adding change and variety can prolong the lifespan of your motivation–for as long as you want to keep it up, even if you’re talking about a lifetime!
Your body just might thank you, too, as your mind, stamina, and muscles might be challenged in new ways that stimulate growth and lessen the odds of developing overuse injuries.
3) Set realistic goals that also build in guilt-free “splurges”
I’m a big believer that any regimen that is too strict is simply too hard to keep in the long-run.
Remember the good healthy lifestyle goal above?
“…and I’m going to replace a portion of my current unhealthy eating habits with healthier eating choices….”
Note the words–“a portion.”
You’re setting yourself up for long-term failure if you your health goals are all or nothing. Focus on making any improvement–just one step forward. Later you can always go another step forward. You’re more likely to experience success if your expectations don’t include drastic, overnight changes.
I also believe that there are quite a handful of health “vices” that can still be overcome by an otherwise healthy lifestyle if taken in occasional and moderate levels.
The kind of health “vices” I am talking about here might include some type of junk food or taking a day off of exercise, for example. Giving the body a day of rest from exercise has its own health benefits, anyway, and is a topic unto itself.
Do your diet indulgence fantasies consist of dark chocolate brownies with frosting–or In-And-Out burgers?
“Budget” into your healthy lifestyle goals an occasional, moderate allowance of these indulgences.
You’ll be a happier person, and you’ll most likely be better able to maintain your healthy lifestyle goals if you know you can count on an occasional, guilt-free, and well-deserved splurge.
4) Write down your healthy lifestyle goals or tell someone who will support you
By documenting–or even better, by sharing–your healthy lifestyle goals, there is accountability, support, and encouragement available to help you truly make a lifestyle change.
Of course, some people will offer more accountability and support than others, so perhaps think through who in your life would best cheer-lead you in these goals.
If there is no one in particular in your life, perhaps you can find a local nutritionist, fitness coach, counselor, support group, or activity group.
Some additional interesting research tidbits about being able to maintain new healthy lifestyle habits:
1) Self-directed physical activity at home might improve fitness training adherence and effectiveness for some people.
- One small study of overweight, obese, and sedentary adults explored yoga as an achievable “transition” activity the might increase overall physical activity. While participants expressed preference of face-to-face instruction from an instructor rather than self-directed practice at home with a DVD, those who were given the DVD ended up demonstrating significantly higher levels of physical activity after the intervention compared to those instructed face-to-face with an instructor.
- It’s also possible that there is room for some combination between supervised and home-based physical fitness training, as another study had indicated.
2) Taking advantage of technology may help promote physical activity and adherence to fitness regimens
- Technology in this review of the literature included mobile phones, text messages, websites, CDs, and computer-learning-based technology. Data from multiple studies supported the notion of technology being an effective tool for promoting and maintaining physical activity.
- Maybe it’s time you start exploring fitness and nutrition phone apps, if you haven’t, already!
3) Your personal knowledge about your health conditions and about your personal control may play key roles in adhering to exercise and diet goals
- An interesting study in Jordan evaluated 254 patients with coronary heart disease and found exercise regimen adherence was significantly linked with both knowledge of personal health conditions as well as belief about personal control
- Diet regimen adherence was significantly linked to knowledge of personal health conditions only
So as you set your eyes on your health goals for the coming year, consider reframing some of those goals for yourself so that you can best set yourself up for success!