Want 2005 to be the year when you finally follow through on a New Year's resolution to get fit? It is possible if you have a plan for regular exercise and a well-balanced diet. Research shows good nutrition and physical activity are key ingredients in weight loss, enhanced muscle tone, and overall health.
This is common knowledge. Yet why is it that in January, motivation is high to eat right and work out, but by February, resolves are less than robust? Do people no longer want to get fit? Have they found better ways to reach their goal?
There are several theories explaining why the best of New Year's resolutions sputter before they're realized.
Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Camp Hill, Penn., blames the "inner brat" in all of us for thwarting positive change. The inner brat is an internal voice that acts like a toddler. It doesn't like discomfort or inconvenience. It wants what it wants when it wants it.
"Our inner brat convinces us that we don't really have to exercise that day," explains Wallin. "When it doesn't want to exert itself, it will make excuses like 'It's too cold,' 'It's too dark,' 'I'm too tired,' or 'It's too late.'"
When people pay attention to their inner brat, they tend to negotiate with it. They may promise the little voice they will work out or eat right starting tomorrow. The next day, they may put off their fitness plan again, until they figure it's too late to start anything for the week. So they'll decide to begin their resolution next week, next month, or next year.
This series of putting off important goals can be discouraging. To fight the inner brat, refuse to work with it. "You don't negotiate with a little brat," says Wallin, who has authored Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior.
It would also help to get to know the inner brat's tactics and to find a way to regain control. Concentrate on the reason you are making changes in your life. This will divert your attention from the little voice's ranting.
Dozens of other factors could distract from a New Year's resolution to get fit, says Michael Gerrish, exercise physiologist, psychotherapist, and author of The Mind-Body Makeover Project: A 12-Week Plan for Transforming Your Body and Life.
Gerrish says there are unidentified fitness obstacles (UFOs) to positive change. These UFOs block the motivation to eat right and exercise. They include things such as:
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
- Work addiction
- Hormone imbalances
- Food allergies and intolerance
- Sleep apnea
- Toxic relationships
- Weak boundaries
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
The 52 most common UFOs are listed in Gerrish's book, which has a test people can take to figure out which obstacles they have. The test is not meant to be diagnostic, but it could make people aware of barriers to success.
"Until people find out that they have these kinds of problems, anything that they do to try to get themselves motivated is, in general, going to be for naught," says Gerrish.
For instance, people who resolve to work out at 5 a.m. daily may have a slim chance of success if they do not realize they have low-grade depression, seasonal affective disorder, or a hormone imbalance that could make getting up early an extremely difficult task.
Once people figure out obstacles to change, they can determine how to address them. To treat a medical or biochemical problem, Gerrish recommends a visit to a doctor. Psychological trouble could be managed with the help of a mental health professional.
"The likelihood of success will be much greater if you address obstacles right upfront," says Gerrish.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
John C. Norcross, PhD, co-author of Changing for Good, conducted small scientific studies on New Year's resolutions and found successful resolvers behaved in a similar manner.
"For the most part, it's what you do, not who you are [that effects change]," says Norcross, noting that personal characteristics, types of problems, and levels of motivation make little difference. "Behavior is what matters."
According to Norcross' research, successful resolvers did the following:
- Made a New Year's resolution. Norcross found resolvers were 10 times more likely to make a change at six months, compared to contemplators. The latter were people who had similar problems and similar desire for change, but who did not make an effort to make a resolution.
- Armed themselves with realistic confidence to make a change. Their confidence did not necessarily come from self-esteem, but from a readiness to make a particular transformation.
- Stayed positive. Successful resolvers stumbled from their resolutions just as much as the unsuccessful in early January. The difference was in what they did when they fell. Successful people said the slip helped them refocus and reconnect with their goal. The unsuccessful saw the fall as evidence they couldn't achieve their objective.
- Prepared a healthy alternative to the problem behavior. The triumphant did not just promise to stop overeating. They managed their diet. They did not just vow to be less of a couch potato. They exercised.
- Reinforced themselves. Successful resolvers strengthened their resolve somehow. No specific technique stood out as an effective strategy, says Norcross, emphasizing it was the act of reinforcement, not the method, that mattered in victory. As an example, some people rewarded themselves for meeting certain objectives. Others complimented themselves, regularly monitored their behavior, or made a pact with someone. "Everyone needs a slightly different reinforcement," says Norcross.
- Fortified themselves with social support. Although Norcross found social support didn't matter as much in the beginning of a transformation, he found it indispensable for successful people beyond the first month, regardless of their source of support. "What's important is that everyone gets some support, not that they go to a support group, or that they have to do it with someone in particular, or that they make a resolution with someone at work," says Norcross.
Norcross steers clear of giving specific strategies on what could help people with their resolutions. He says research shows it's best to give people broad strategies and methods and let them figure out the particulars. What works for one person may not work out for another. Plus, there are variances as to what's available and what's realistic for each individual.
For instance, chocolate might be a good reward for someone, but not for the person who is allergic to it. Writing a to-do list may help someone focus and be ready for change, but the task might overwhelm somebody else.
Tools for Change
Three years ago, Melissa made a New Year's resolution to get in shape. At 5 feet 8 inches, she weighed 200 pounds and felt extremely sluggish. To lose weight, she stopped taking antidepressants, which she says contributed to her growing waistline. She began walking a lot and eventually took up yoga. She visited a holistic doctor, who prescribed herbs and supplements. Then she started to follow the eating habits promoted by Weight Watchers, even though she did not officially join the group. She says her mother was a member and shared the literature with her. She learned how to choose her foods, eat at a slower pace, and watch meal portions.
Today, Melissa is at least 50 pounds lighter. She has stopped checking her weight all the time because she feels fit, and that's good enough for her.
"When I reached my goal, it built up my confidence," says the 26-year-old. "It was very empowering."
Melissa credits her success to a strong desire to be a healthier person and to the various nutrition and exercise plans she has tried. Her weight loss story is, indeed, a complicated one, not like other success stories that usually highlight the effectiveness of one or two methods.
Different techniques work for different people. For some, a diet and exercise buddy may be helpful. For others, quiet time to review their resolutions and write in a journal may be preferable. There are people who are inspired to move with tools such as pedometers and heart monitors. Others prefer to share their progress with a personal trainer, a dietitian, or an online fitness coach.
There are many techniques and resources available for lasting change. There are also various roadblocks to transformation. The trick is figuring out how to deal with obstacles and make change happen in a manner that's right for you.