Every New Year’s, many of us decide it is time to make a change to our lifestyle. Oftentimes, this inkling towards lifestyle change involves developing healthier habits, such as cleaner eating or beginning an exercise program.
Each year, we begin this process with such determination and motivation to find that most of us abandon our resolution in just a few weeks. In fact, 10.8 percent of all gym membership sales occur in the month of January which then fall close to the yearly average when February hits (Poon, 2019).
There are several reasons why we see this trend, but ultimately human behavior science tells us that old habits die hard, and new habits are difficult to form. Successful habit formation (such as beginning and maintaining an exercise program) requires that the habits are somewhat small, sustainable, and become automatic (Gardner et al., 2012). A new habit can begin with motivation but then requires discipline to maintain.
How to Plan Your Goals
Frequently, clients will come to my practice with a specific weight loss goal in mind after the holidays. A common goal may be to lose 50 pounds by the end of the year, to exercise regularly, to get more sleep, or to eat healthy.
While these goals are well intended (focused on improving health), they are not good goals because they are not specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely, or process oriented. For instance, a goal of wanting to exercise, sleep more, or eat healthy are extremely vague.
It is important to ask yourself how you are going to use goal setting behavior to achieve a desired outcome (Epton et al., 2017). Likewise, a goal of losing 50 pounds by the end of the year is only outcome oriented- what process are you going to follow to achieve the desired outcome?
Goal Setting 101
Let us outline the process of setting S.M.A.R.T goals using an example.
“My New Years Resolution is to exercise more.”
Is my goal specific?
This statement is vague. Instead, let us modify this statement to outline the process. A more specific goal may be to exercise five times per week.
Is my goal measurable?
Exercising five times per week is great, except, what does that mean? How many minutes of exercise are you planning to do each time? Do you have to commit to two hours of hard exercise in the gym or does a five-minute walk meet your goal? Instead, this goal can become more measurable by changing it a bit to say, “I will exercise for 60 minutes five times per week.”
Is my goal attainable?
Committing to 300 minutes of exercise five times per week may be right at the top of American College of Sports Medicine guidelines recommended for adults, however it may be a bit ambitious for someone just beginning an exercise program or a more sporadic exerciser with a hectic work or family schedule.
Evaluate the goal and ask yourself if this goal is attainable and sustainable. A more attainable goal may be to engage in moderate exercise for 60 minutes three times per week.
Is my goal relevant?
Exercise can be hard work and must become a consistent habit for you to truly reap the benefits of it. Are you a person that likes the outdoors or do you prefer exercising at a gym? Do you want exercise to incorporate socialization? How much exercise do you truly want or need? A more relevant goal could be committing to attend three 60-minute group fitness classes per week with friends.
Is my goal time bound?
Behavior change is not an instant process. In fact, behaviors must be repeated for long periods of time to truly become sustained habits- and it may take longer than you may think- as much as 46 to 488 days (Stoeckel, 2021).
Remember that healthy behaviors require consistency to achieve the desired outcomes. Adding a time-bound component to this goal may be committing to attend three 60-minute group fitness classes per week with friends for six months. Once you reach the six-month mark, you may find that this goal is no longer difficult to maintain.
In summary, instead of simply setting a goal to exercise more, a smarter (S.M.A.R.T) version of this goal may be “My New Years Resolution is to attend three 60-minute group fitness classes per week with my friends for a period of six months.”
I don’t have enough time!
This is the excuse coaches hear the most. Many people have demanding work and family schedules which make fitting in dedicated exercise time a tremendous feat of scheduling magic. However, the main issue is the way fitness is viewed. It is very easy to get caught up with Instagram or TikTok feeds from fitness enthusiasts who spend hours in the gym each day.
This is not necessary for general health. Setting an appropriate exercise routine that is manageable with a busy schedule is not as hard as your think. Small but sustainable changes which add more physical activity to daily life, or a more modest dedicated exercise routine are far more effective than elaborate time-consuming workouts. In fact, increasing daily activity to expend just an additional 100- 200 kcal per day was shown to be highly effective at preventing weight gain and even induced weight loss (Hills et al., 2013).
This can be accomplished by adding in an after-dinner or lunchtime walk each day or allowing a little bit of extra time to commute to work on a bicycle, by foot, or parking your car far enough away from your office to get a 10–15-minute walk in before work.
Current resistance training guidelines for basic health include working each major muscle group twice per week (Yang, 2019). This can be accomplished in as little as twice per week for 30–40-minute bouts. Overall, an effective exercise routine could include a daily walk and two days of resistance training before or after work.
I am too out of shape!
The paradox about this exercise avoidance excuse is that this is the cohort that needs exercise the most. For those of us who are out of shape, beginning an exercise program is the most cost effective and attainable means of reducing the risk of premature death (from all causes) and physiologic malfunction. Even small improvements in physical fitness can translate to significant improvements in longevity and quality of life.
Interestingly, this impact is most significant in people who were previously sedentary (Warburton et al., 2006). Blair et al. (1995) examined a group of 9,777 men who began an exercise regimen five years prior. The group that began relatively unfit that maintained their exercise regimen five years later had the greatest reduction in all cause mortality which amounted to 44 percent lower than their continuously sedentary peers (Blair et al., 1995).
I am too old!
A person is never too old to begin an exercise program. In fact, this group needs exercise to not only improve longevity, but independence. Conditions such as sarcopenia (muscle wasting), frailty, osteoporosis, cognitive decline, loss of executive functioning, and balance/coordination problems can impair an older adult’s ability to complete activities of daily living.
Exercise, especially resistance training, is associated with improvement in all these conditions as well as markers of power, strength, muscle size, balance, and mobility in older adults leading to more years of independence (Lavin et al., 2019).
I have chronic musculoskeletal pain
Oftentimes, people with chronic musculoskeletal pain are apprehensive about beginning an exercise program for fear of worsening symptoms. The opposite is true. Inactivity creates muscle imbalances, dysfunctional movement patterns, impairments in hormonal functioning, and increases in inflammation leading to chronic pain or conditions that cause chronic pain.
Holth et al. (2008) conducted a large-scale prospective study examining the association between inactivity and chronic musculoskeletal pain after 11 years in 39,520 adults. The researchers found that there was a 28 percent reduction in musculoskeletal pain or conditions in the group that reported exercising 3 or more times per week.
Appropriate resistance training, corrective exercise, flexibility training, and increased movement throughout the day can be highly effective for reducing chronic musculoskeletal pain.
I can’t seem to stay motivated
This excuse is likely the result of how we advertise fitness programs. We hear messages trying to motivate us to sign up for a gym or subscribe to a fitness program or platform only to find that motivation fails to keep us consistent. Motivation is a fleeting emotion.
Rather than focus on staying motivated, consider focusing on building discipline. Setting up appropriate goals and sticking to them regardless of what emotions or obstacles is the key to succeeding with building a habit.
How to Hold Yourself Accountable: Tips and Tricks
1. Set a S.M.A.R.T goal that you can realistically achieve and periodically update it as you build new habits. Ensure that these habits are easy to maintain before advancing your goals.
2. Invest in a fitness tracker to help measure and keep a log of your data and progress. Looking back on where you started can help you stay consistent, especially at times when you feel progress has stagnated. These trackers can also assist in measuring extra activity throughout the day that may not necessarily be dedicated exercise sessions (i.e., chores, gardening, increased overall step counts, etc.).
3. Set a schedule and stick to it regardless of how you feel. Many of us do not always feel like brushing our teeth or going to work, but we do them anyways because they keep us healthy
4. Rely on discipline rather than motivation to keep you going. Motivation is not reliable, but building discipline helps you to maintain consistent habits.
5. Find fitness friends who have similar goals or consider hiring a qualified coach to support you.
Making the commitment to begin an exercise program is an excellent New Years’ Resolution that can significantly improve longevity, functionality, and long-term health. The key to reaping the benefits of exercise is consistency.
Setting attainable goals, discrediting excuses, relying on discipline, and finding others to help you in the process will help you find success in the new year and beyond.
Blair, S. N., Kohl, H. W., Barlow, C. E., Paffenbarger, R. S., Gibbons, L. W., & Macera, C. A. (1995). Changes in physical fitness and all-cause mortality. A prospective study of healthy and unhealthy men. JAMA, 273(14), 1093–1098. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7707596/
Epton, T., Currie, S., & Armitage, C. J. (2017). Unique effects of setting goals on behavior change: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 85(12), 1182–1198. https://doi.org/10.1037/ccp0000260
Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of “habit-formation” and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664–666. https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp12x659466
Hills, A. P., Byrne, N. M., Lindstrom, R., & Hill, J. O. (2013). Small Changes’ to Diet and Physical Activity Behaviors for Weight Management. Obesity Facts, 6(3), 228–238. https://doi.org/10.1159/000345030
Holth, H. S., Werpen, H. K. B., Zwart, J.-A., & Hagen, K. (2008). Physical inactivity is associated with chronic musculoskeletal complaints 11 years later: results from the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2474-9-159
Lavin, K. M., Roberts, B. M., Fry, C. S., Moro, T., Rasmussen, B. B., & Bamman, M. M. (2019). The Importance of Resistance Exercise Training to Combat Neuromuscular Aging. Physiology, 34(2), 112–122. https://doi.org/10.1152/physiol.00044.2018
Poon, L. (2019, January 16). Bloomberg - Are you a robot? Www.bloomberg.com. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-16/here-s-how-quickly-people-ditch-weight-loss-resolutions
Stoeckel, L. (2021, December 15). ’Tis the season for healthy habit research. National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/research/blog/2021/12/tis-season-healthy-habit-research#:~:text=Building%20a%20healthy%20habit%20takes%20time&text=But%20the%20science%20of%20behavior
Warburton, D. E. R., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. D. (2006). Health Benefits of Physical activity: the Evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 174(6), 801–809. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.051351
Yang, Y. J. (2019). An Overview of Current Physical Activity Recommendations in Primary Care. Korean Journal of Family Medicine, 40(3), 135–142. https://doi.org/10.4082/kjfm.19.0038