30 December 2015

Advice for Healthy New Year's Resolutions


It's easy to finish the year incredibly determined to start the next one off on the right foot. January is the busiest month for gym memberships. It shouldn’t be surprising that when it comes to New Year’s Resolutions, those relating to health and fitness represent the majority of declarations. Here are some of the more interesting statistics on New Year’s resolutions are taken from Details and Statisticbrain. Thankfully, the internet makes it pretty easy to request, gather, organise and analyse social data of this nature.:

  • 45% of people make New Year's resolutions
  • 1 in 3 people ditch theirs by the end January
  • 2 in 3 people who make resolutions include health as a goal
  • 73% give up before meeting their goal
  • 21% resolve to lose weight and this is the most common resolution (improve finance and getting organised round out the top 3)

Why New Years makes for a such an appropriate time for prompting health and fitness changes makes a lot of sense. People like timelines and our brains function according to schedules, times and dates for substantial events. It's important however to remember that health and well being isn't a short term ideal. All the “new year new YOU!” motivation in the world doesn't mean much if it doesn't last but a couple of months. The star that burns brightest often burns out fastest. It would be great to lose 10kg in 10 weeks and just worry about the long term as it approaches, but without that big picture mindset, it'll be difficult to ever get where you truly want to be which is a self-sustaining long lasting lifestyle approach health and wellness.

It's not about being on a diet or losing weight as much as it is about being healthy. That being said, there aren't many times where turning over a new leaf by making some widespread goal orientated lifestyle changes is better sparked than the new year. Here are some things to keep in mind when putting together your New Year’s resolution.

New year, new you!
Some things may have to be drastic
Deciding on what aspects of your new lifestyle should be jumped into with both feet as opposed to a slow transition can be quite difficult. That being said, while easing into healthier eating or exercise may seem smoother and more comfortable, it’s important to respect the difficulties temptation and convenience bring to the table. WIll power is an area of academic study gaining a lot of attention lately. While willpower and determination are inherent traits which cannot be concretely quantifiable, there is an increasing body of psychological and sociological research discovering that willpower is limited in strength.

The American Psychological Association explains that willpower is like combination of skill and physical capacity. Willpower can be learned and developed the same way cardiovascular endurance, or reading efficiency can be improved as well. However, the most pertinent aspect of this is that willpower depletes as it is tested. In other words, the more temptations and conveniences you have around you, the more your reserves of willpower are taxed and your self-control weakened. Keeping sugary treats or coupons for fast food around increase the likelihood of broken diets in the short term and drastically weaken the long-term success of any healthy lifestyle change.

As uncomfortable or wasteful as it may seem, it therefore may be the best thing in the long term, to go through a dramatic kitchen cleanse and get rid of all highly processed, carb-rich foods, pre-packaged sugar sweets, and toxic convenience-meals and snacks. If you don’t see them, you don’t need to rely on self-control to not eat them.

Regarding exercise, the notion of self-control can also be aided by including others into your plans. The peer-pressure effect of obligation has shown to work wonders for helping people commit to their workout plans. Rather than rely on your own willpower to go to workout on your own, not wanting to bail on a friend or trainer, or waste a membership you’ve already paid for can be a powerful motivator.

Some things can be eased into
Where some things should be made drastic as discussed above, others should be eased into to prevent yourself from feeling bad for falling short. Missing a gym session isn’t really that detrimental if overall, you’ve been living a more active lifestyle by walking more, opting for the stairs rather than the elevator, and taking the kids to the park, and playing with them, rather than spending the afternoon in front of a screen.

Likewise, and this is a big one for me personally, healthy eating doesn’t have to be 100%. Christmas season just ended, which means there are plenty of people out there, that despite all the willpower in the world, practical circumstances made it near impossible to perfectly adhere to their usual healthy eating regimen. The same can be said for times of illness, emotional distress, the busy times at work, or any of the million other situations people find themselves in where they have less time, energy or motivation to exercise perfect discipline.

This means that, the goal, shouldn’t be to perfection or strictness with your new healthy lifestyle. When enjoying unhealthy holiday treats, or satisfying a fast food craving because of a crazy work period, do just that - enjoy it. Embrace the momentary lapse in wholesome living as just that - momentary - enjoy it, be mindful of what it means for your gut, temperament, energy levels and the rest of your body, and move on. Full awareness, no guilt. You’ll pick back up, when you can. It’s far too easy to let things go at the start of december with first offering of rum balls and shortbread, and to go from there, to a guilt-induced over-dramatic New Years resolution after 4 weeks of chocolate, cake and hot cocoa.

Screenshot 2015-12-29 at 9.11.52 AM.png
Tracking your activity and progress is handy, but there's not real finish line to healthy living.

Emphasise actions over results
While being goal-orientated is often a positive way to tackle new challenges, it’s important to remember that being fit and healthy doesn’t involve an end goal. Declarations such as “lose 10kg” may be a useful way to track and measure success, but the actions that bring that result about are what are more significant.

In other words, if “lose 10kg” or “fit into this size jeans” is the goal you have mind, it may lead to a lack of satisfaction or motivation once that goal is reached. Instead, frame your goals around the actions you want to make in the new year. Rather than run 5k, focus your motivation on running weekly. While bench pressing your body weight may be the ultimate check box you’re out to complete, improving or establishing a better chest routine may add a deeper angle to your workouts.

The main difference is in the approach. A smart and measurable goal makes it easier to judge success - am I swimming every week or not? Anyone with an organisational, logical or business-orientated mind can see obvious benefits in this. However, how absolute this approach is can cause motivational problems. After 3 weeks of missing your weekly swim, the logic that made the resolution so sound, actually adjusts to make bailing on the goal of hitting the pool every week seem more reasonable. There’s no point in telling yourself you’ll do something you just can’t at the moment because of work, illness, laziness or whatever other balls that spontaneously are added to those we have to juggle.

Instead, reframing the resolution to be more flexible, action-based and focused on the lifestyle change avoids these traps. A 3 week stint of not being able swim because of a hectic schedule isn’t as detrimental if the goal is simply to swim more often. While “swim more” may sound vague, and harder to track, than “swim 30 minutes each week”, it definitely allows for more an open ended pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. At its simplest angle, unless you’re perhaps a competitive swimmer, or signing up for a charity team-triathlon, warranting a dedicated swimming program, any measurable benchmark may be irrelevant. For the average person, the overall goal isn’t to swim every week, it probably isn’t even to swim more, but is really just to be more active, and stay more active for an undetermined amount of time - as long as possible. Focusing your attention on the action, may allow you to forget about the measurable checkboxes and instead make the balanced, diverse and varied adjustments to your life, as you live it.

A summary and example
First, depending on where you’re starting point is, some changes you make to move toward a healthier lifestyle may need to be drastic. Keeping these simple and visibly identifiable helps. Large one-off prompts may help jolt you into action and relieve you of conflicting engagements or taxing bouts of willpower.

Second, it’s important not to go overboard with too many deliberate and quantifiable goals. Life is complicated for most people which mean that meeting rigidly planned commitments can be near, or literally impossible in the complicated juggling that goes on. Feeling like a failure and then giving up, can often make the tactile goal more trouble than it’s worth.

Lastly, focusing on the actions rather than end-results serve to stabilise any changes you make. Even though benchmarks can make progress tracking easier and provide a nice sense of achievement, they can make thinking long-term aspirations difficult and when it comes to adopting healthier practices, the long-term is really all that matters.

In our house, we’re in the process of increasing our intake of quality animal products - namely bone broth and fatty meats. The commitment to going shopping almost every other day in pursuit of fresh, local and wholesomely produced food is a pretty big step and has taken some serious adjustment regarding how we plan our days. Trying to lift weights more is a slight yet high-impact adjustment we’re trying to make. Gym memberships have been paid for, but there’s no strict program or class-commitment. Half an hour, twice a week is the loose goal we’re trying to hit as a minimum standard. Sprinting more is the last health related change we’re hoping to make going forward. The killer Australian heat makes it tough for about half the year, so winter has never been a problem, but 4 or 5 100m dashes once or twice a month on average throughout the year seems reasonable to me. Regularly moving at maximum exertion (for short instances) is incredibly beneficial, and far more time efficient.

That’s as far as it goes for in terms of 2016 health resolutions. Three very simple and deliberate changes to make, but neither is set up as a finish line to succeed or fail at reaching. Again, the act of incorporating these into our lives for the long-term is absolutely more important than to what standard we meet these within the next 12 months. Stopping once success is reached to go back to normal is not success at all. Success is establishing a new normal.

According to my Healthy Forever followers, about 50% of people set health and fitness related New Year's resolutions.