Lose weight. Eat healthy foods. Exercise daily. If you're like many people, you made these or similar pledges during the annual New Year's Day ritual of resolving to improve our health. Of course, resolutions are easy to start; the challenge is sustaining them. One month later, have you held true to your good intentions?
Some pundits would have you believe that New Year's resolutions are a waste of time. But in fact, experts say, the very act of making resolutions improves your odds of success.
"Studies show that people who resolve to change behaviors do much better than non-resolvers who have the same habits that need to be changed," says University of Scranton psychologist John Norcross.
Statistics show that, at the end of January, some 64% of resolvers are still hanging in there; six months later, that number drops to 44%, according to Norcross, author of Changing for Good.
It's All in the Planning
Making resolutions is the first step, but, experts say, you need a plan and a healthy dose of perseverance if you want to succeed.
"These habits and behaviors are very difficult to change, and when you don't have a well-thought-out plan on how you are going to make sustainable changes that fit into your lifestyle, it leads to failure," he says.
In other words, it's not enough to simply say, "I want to lose weight and exercise more." You need a detailed blueprint that addresses how you'll reach these goals.
"Everyone has strengths and weaknesses," says Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "If you want to succeed, you need to have a concrete plan that plays into your strengths and avoids distractions [from] your goals by your weaknesses."
Part of that planning is anticipating situations in which you're likely to slip up -- such as when you're stressed out, eating at a restaurant, or traveling.
For example, "if you plan ahead and pack a meal for the plane or carry some nuts, you won't just grab anything because you are famished, and are more likely to minimize the slipups and stick with your resolution for healthier eating," says Arthur Agatston, MD, author of the best-selling The South Beach Diet.
Experts say it's also important to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. A realistic resolution is one you can sustain for at least a year -- not just for a few weeks.
Of course you'd like to see those extra pounds gone in a hurry, but quick weight loss is usually not permanent weight loss, experts say. Diets that have strict rules, eliminate or severely restrict certain foods, or otherwise take a lot of effort are usually only successful in the short term. After all, anyone can lose weight eating mostly cabbage soup -- but how long could you keep that up?
"Very low-calorie diets lead to quick weight loss of not only fat but muscle and bone, too," says Agatson. "These diets also lower metabolism and when an individual goes back to eating the way they used to (because no one can live on cabbage soup), their slower metabolism will require fewer calories and, ultimately, they gain all the weight back and then some."
Top 10 Habits of Successful Resolvers
Now that you know some of the reasons so many people fall off the resolution wagon, here are 10 expert tips to help you stick with your own New Year's vows:
1. Have a Realistic Eating Plan
Agatston suggests an eating plan that has plenty of variety, yet is simple, interesting, and tastes good -- such as the Mediterranean-style diet with its "good carbs" from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; healthy fats from nuts, fish, and olive and canola oils; and lean protein. "There should not be so much confusion over what is the best kind of diet; these are the basics as recommended by the new [U.S.] dietary guidelines and pyramid," he says. "You can find an eating style that works in your life without weighing, measuring, or restrictive eating."
2. Believe in Yourself
Seeing is believing; once you see you are capable of making changes in your behavior, it inspires confidence. So says Canyon Ranch of Tucson's Director of Nutrition, Lisa Powell, MS, RD. "I ask my clients to imagine themselves practicing a particular behavior change two weeks out, two months out, two years out, and if the answer is 'no,' then we re-evaluate to make sure the goal is doable," Powell says. "Breaking down a lofty goal into smaller steps is often what is needed to gain the belief that you can do it."
3. Get Support
Studies show that social support is critical, especially after the first few weeks when your motivation flags. Seek out someone who will be there for you long-term. "Some people find success with online support groups while others do better with an exercise buddy," says Norcross. "You need to figure out what kind of support will help you during the tough times that are inevitable when changing behaviors."
4. Spell Out the Details
So you want to lose weight or exercise more -- just how do you plan to do it? How will you handle eating out, or a schedule that squeezes out exercise? Devise a sensible plan for how you'll shop, cook, and fit in fitness. Think through how you'll deal with cravings, but don't deprive yourself. If you give yourself permission to eat what really matters to you, it puts you in control (instead of the diet), and empowers you to make a healthy decision on portion size, says Powell. "Eliminating your favorite foods can be a recipe for disaster," she says. "Instead, allow yourself small portions, on occasion. Otherwise, the denial may create an obsession that derails your goals."
5. Set Mini-Goals
Maybe you want to lose 50 pounds, but you'll be more motivated to succeed if you celebrate every 10 pounds lost. Realistic resolutions are ones you can live with. Look at them as lots of "baby steps" strung together. Setting the bar too high can be demoralizing. People who set attainable, realistic goals are more likely to succeed, says Norcross.
6. Manage Your Cravings
Cravings for foods are caused by swings in your blood sugar. If you eat the right kinds of foods and snack strategically, you can eliminate cravings, says Agatston. "Almost everyone who is overweight has cravings, typically late-afternoon hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)," he says. "They frequently choose simple carbs (like sweets, soda, and refined bread products) that give them a quick boost." The problem is that a quick rise in blood sugar is usually followed by quick fall, and hunger strikes again. Eating every 3-4 hours, and always including lean protein (from nuts, low-fat dairy, lean meats, or beans) will satisfy your hunger for fewer calories and without the dramatic swings in blood sugar, Agatston says.
7. Control Your Environment
Stack the deck in your favor by eliminating tempting, fattening treats from your surroundings. Instead, stock the pantry and refrigerator with plenty of healthy foods, Tallmadge says. Surround yourself with people, places, and things that will help you change your behavior. Avoid those that invite problems, like going to happy hour or eating at a buffet restaurant.
8. Do the Opposite
George Costanza on Seinfeld thought it was a good idea, and Norcross says it works for resolvers: "We call it counter-conditioning: one needs to do the opposite of the problem behavior. The opposite of sedentary behavior is an active behavior. It is not good enough to diet; instead, you need to replace the unhealthy foods with more nutritious foods."
9. Reward Yourself
Reward yourself all along the way for continued motivation and success. "A reward can be a massage, flowers, or removing chores you dislike," says Tallmadge. Figure out what will work for you, and reward yourself whenever you achieve a mini-goal (such as losing 10 pounds or exercising every day for a week).
10. Anticipate Slips, and Deal with Them Constructively
Don't let a slipup derail your resolve to improve your health. Setbacks are inevitable; it's how you respond to them that matters. "One of the most important skills I teach my clients is how to recover from slips," says Tallmadge. Successful resolvers use slipups to help them get back on track, serving as a reminder that they need to be strong. People who see slips as a failure often use one as an excuse to give up, says Norcross.