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Setting Realistic, Successful Resolutions for Your Health and Wellness

28 December 2022

The idea of a New Year’s resolution is a longstanding tradition in society that many Americans participate in. The harsh reality is many of these resolutions fail before the calendar turns to February. This blog will explain why resolutions fail and how to set yourself up for success in the new year.

What is a New Year's resolution?

The new year signifies a clean slate for everyone. To coincide with this fresh start, many people make a New Year’s resolution to set goals and aspirations for the upcoming year. A resolution is a conscious decision to make changes in your life, whether that be physical, emotional or behavioral.

New Year’s resolutions offer a chance for you to look back on the previous year and decide what you want to improve on moving forward. In general, New Year’s resolutions center on self improvement. Trends change each year, but here is a glimpse of the most common resolutions:

  • Exercising more
  • Eating healthier
  • Losing weight
  • Spending more time with family and friends
  • Being more financially savvy
  • Reducing alcohol consumption
  • Stop smoking
  • Reducing stress
  • Increasing work productivity

Why don’t New Year’s resolutions work?

Perhaps the issue is rooted in psychology and starts with the word resolution. By definition, a resolution is a firm decision to do or not do something. The “firm” nature of a resolution can put pressure on you to succeed. If you don’t, it’s a failure, which isn’t the best way to set you up for success. Failure is a harsh word, too, one that can evoke shame and disappointment. Add it all up, and it’s easy to see why so many resolutions stop before they truly even begin.

The way the brain operates also plays a role in people struggling with New Year’s resolutions. Usually, resolutions focus on improving or changing old habits that are difficult to break.

Whenever you want to make a choice to perform an act, the prefrontal cortex (the cerebral cortex covering the front part of the frontal lobe) kicks in to assist with decision making. When these decisions become repetitive, the prefrontal cortex turns off in a way that makes behaviors automatic. Take, for example, driving. Years and years of driving a car conditions your body to the point where it becomes second nature.

While this series of events can be beneficial for multitasking, it becomes problematic when negative habits form. All habits occur as part of a habit loop controlled by the basal ganglia, a part of the brain that regulates motor function. Three steps make up a habit loop: a trigger, a behavior and a reward. A trigger initiates a behavior, the behavior itself is the act you perform and the reward is the emotion or physical act received after performing the behavior.

Here is an example of how a bad habit forms:

  • Trigger: I’m craving something sweet.
  • Behavior: I eat a pint of ice cream.
  • Reward: I feel better about myself.

Once repeated, these habits become hard to break because the prefrontal cortex turns off. However, you can use habit loops as part of a New Year’s resolution to form good habits. Start small with a stepwise approach. 

For example, if you want to work out more in the new year, a trigger or cue may be to put on workout clothes. Once you get used to putting on workout clothes, you can act on your behavior by exercising. For consistency, try and exercise at the same time every day to condition your brain. Finally, your reward doesn’t have to always be something physical – a reward can be a positive affirmation, recognizing the decisions or changes you’ve made.

How do you set realistic New Year’s resolutions?

Habits don’t start or change in a matter of hours; they take time. This explains why crash dieting – drastically reducing caloric intake in a short amount of time – doesn’t work. To set yourself up for success in the new year, here are some tips to follow.

Set SMART goals

Many people want to lose weight or workout more in the new year, but this isn’t a specific, achievable goal. By using SMART goals, you provide yourself with direction and a way to measure specific benchmarks.

SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Time specific

Instead of coming up with a generic resolution of going to the gym more, you would choose a specific, attainable goal that can be measured and is time-specific. In other words, you may decide to run a 5K race and complete it in under 30 minutes (or a 9-minute, 40-second minute mile).

To prepare for that goal, you may choose to train for the 5K by running three to four days a week, 30 minutes a day, for several months. Using the SMART goal application, training to run a 5K under 30 minutes is specific; the training itself is both measurable (you can keep track of it in an app each day) and timely (three to four days a week for a month). Additionally, if you complete the training, your goal of running a 5K under 30 minutes is both attainable and realistic.

The same goes for healthy eating resolutions. Instead of saying you want to eat better, come up with something more specific like eating one vegan meal per week by incorporating more fruits and vegetables or eating dessert only on the weekends while treating yourself to healthier treats during the week (a bowl of fruit, frozen yogurt, etc.)

Set small goals

As we’ve seen, it takes repeated efforts to condition the brain to carry out healthy habits. Many people slip up with their resolutions by making too grandiose of goals. If you’ve never dieted before, losing 25 pounds in a year seems daunting. Instead, start small with a goal of losing a pound per month.

Your goals can be even smaller than that. If you want to eat healthier, take baby steps by bringing your lunch to work at least four times a week. This will help reduce your habit of eating out and consuming extra calories. In another example, swapping out soda for sparkling water can save several hundred calories per day.

Be forgiving

Resolutions aren’t immune to setbacks. For people on a weight loss journey, you may lose a few pounds in the first month only to plateau or gain the weight back by March. While it can be discouraging, allow yourself to have grace. Revisit any changes you made to help pinpoint your hurdles. 

Change is difficult. It’s important not to be too hard on yourself. Don’t engage in negative self talk. After all, you’re putting forth the effort to make changes, which is already worth something. 

One way to be forgiving is to alter your perception of your goals. If your goal is to lose 10 pounds and you plateau after losing 6 pounds, instead of focusing on the 4 pounds that remain, turn your attention to what you’ve already achieved.

Be flexible 

The beauty of resolutions is they don’t have to be forged from concrete. You’re allowed to be flexible. Goals can be modified and altered as you go. If your goals include working out four days a week it’s not the end of the world if you miss one day. Make it up that night or the following day by taking a walk before work or during your lunch break. Something is always better than nothing.

Likewise, if your goal is to stop eating out to save money but your friends invite you to a gathering at a restaurant, take them up on their offer but be smart in doing so. Share an entree or order something small that is both satisfying for your stomach and your wallet.

Do it together

While some people like taking on a new journey alone, it’s best to find a partner to come along for the ride. This can be a friend, family member or spouse. Having a companion is both for motivation and to help keep each other accountable. If your spouse is also exercising, you may be more motivated to join them in the gym.

Alternatives to resolutions

Sometimes, choosing a focus word for the year may suit your personality best. For example, you could choose a word like strength or grace. Strength isn’t just about physical fitness; it also applies to your inner toughness.

These words may seem vague and lack the specificity of SMART goals, but they’re meant for inspiration and general guidance. 

To apply this word in the new year, make physical notes of it, either on an index card or post-it note. Place the cards next to your bed, on your bathroom mirror or in your car. The word will serve as a reminder each day of what you strive to be. Repeating this word to yourself is a form of positive affirmations, or daily reminders to encourage, motivate and inspire you.

Visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog for more lifestyle, wellness and food content.


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