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Articles January 2020 Issue

How to Keep Those Resolutions

Research-backed strategies can help turn annual promises into true behavior change.

New Year's Resolution

Image © JulNichols | Getty Images

The start of a new year is traditionally a time when we resolve to make changes to our lives and lifestyles. Unfortunately, New Year’s resolutions are often short-lived. We’ve got research-backed strategies to help you keep your 2020 resolutions!

Refine Your Resolution: Clearly defined and realistic resolutions that include a specific timeframe are more likely to be maintained than vague aspirations. It’s not enough to resolve to be more physically active or to eat better, for example; one needs specifics. “Planned lifestyle changes should be realistic and sustainable, whether it is for weight management, healthy eating, increased physical activity and sleep time, or reducing stress,” says Sai Krupa Das, PhD, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

An effective way to make your resolutions more concrete is to use the SMART approach: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

Choose Wisely: There’s no end, especially this time of year, to the myriad of advice, programs, and products that claim to help people make healthy lifestyle changes. “Evidence-based approaches should be used instead of popular or fad-based ones,” says Das. Look for reputable sources for information on healthy behaviors and methods for achieving them. Advice from government, healthcare, or educational institutions (like Tufts) is likely to be more accurate than advice from sites that feature a lot of product advertising. Look for multiple strong sources offering the same advice.

It is also essential to aim for sustainable behavior change. For example, a weight loss diet that involves radical dietary changes may lead to good results in the short term, but can be challenging for many to sustain over the long haul. Instead, take sensible, incremental steps toward a healthier overall dietary pattern. Likewise, slowly adding activity beyond your current level is safer (and more effective long-term) than jumping into overly-ambitious changes.

Be Accountable: Holding yourself accountable can be very motivating. One study included nearly 270 people across seven countries from a variety of organizations, who were divided into five groups, each instructed to carry out a different goal-setting process. Group one was told to just think about their goals; group two wrote down their goals; and the final three groups wrote down their goals along with specific actions to carry them out. Group four also sent these plans to a friend, while group five sent the plans to a friend along with weekly progress reports. After four weeks, group five had achieved significantly more than the other groups, with group four close behind. All the groups that wrote down their goals achieved more than the group that merely thought about them, and the combined accountability to both oneself and others had the greatest impact.

Write your goals down in a journal, into a smart phone app, or on a post-it-note stuck to the refrigerator—anywhere you will see them often to keep you focused. Then, share your plan with a partner, friend, or family member, and consider sending them updates.

Being accountable to others can help you stay on track for the longer term too. A study published in the journal BMC Women’s Health found that among women age 40 to 62 years, social support was an important factor to keeping up adherence to a 12-month at-home exercise program. This could involve inviting friends and family to join in exercise activities like a neighborhood walk or classes at a local park, community center or fitness center. Any scenario where you commit to doing something with a group makes you more likely to show up because others expect and rely on you to be there.

Do What You Enjoy: Choose a resolution that you like. You’re more likely to stick to dietary changes if you don’t feel deprived. Likewise, choosing a physical activity you actually enjoy will make it more likely you’ll continue doing it. Some people prefer a social setting like group exercise classes or a team sport, while others would rather take a solitary walk or dance to their favorite music in the privacy of their living room. One study in the journal BMC Public Health found that among previously inactive people with obesity who tried high-intensity functional training, those who enjoyed the exercise at the beginning of the study were more likely to continue doing it after the eight-week study period ended. Also carefully consider an activity’s time and location and how these fit with your current schedule. If participation adds stress to your life, reconsider your choice. Sometimes it takes a few tries to find the right activity for you.

Keep It Up: Don’t let each new January be part of an annual cycle of unrealistic resolutions. “Every new year should see an incremental change in positive behaviors, rather than a complete reset followed by loss of motivation to sustain,” says Das. As you formulate this year’s resolutions, be clear, be SMART, and enjoy each step toward fulfilling those resolutions. Behavior change is more than a once-a-year resolution; it is a lifetime’s journey.

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