Why am I talking about New Year’s resolutions in March?  One reason is that you probably started out with good intentions in January, but I can almost guarantee that things didn’t go as planned.  And it isn’t just you!

Here is the typical resolution story:

It’s January 1st of any given year and you’re feeling optimistic for the year to come.  You say to yourself, “This will be the year I lose the extra 20 pounds I’ve been carrying around.”  You buy a gym membership and a bunch of new food.  You start off great, eating healthy and going to the gym and pushing hard every day.  By January 31st, you stop going to the gym because, who has time to work out?  The new diet is too restrictive and old habits creep back in.  You say to yourself as you cancel your gym membership, “Maybe next year, I’ll lose the weight”.  Rinse and repeat, year after year.

Sound familiar?  I’ll admit that I’ve done this myself a few times too.  It’s so easy to be optimistic at the turn of the new year.  However, after all the optimism wears off and the hard work presents itself, it’s easy to give up.  Since it is March, most people who had these great intentions have already given up.  Norcross & Vangarelli (1988) did a longitudinal study over a two-year period on how long people kept their new year’s resolutions.  After a week, 77% of those contacted were successful at keeping their resolutions.  After a month, it dropped down to a dismal 55%.  By the time two years rolled around, it was all the way down to 19%.  The authors compared this to people who relapse after recovering from addiction.  Even though this study was done a while ago, it’s one of the few that shows how long people keep their resolutions.

Set concrete health goals and try to accomplish them in small steps.

Why do we fail continually at our New Year’s resolutions? There are many reasons.  A study by Pope, Hanks, Just, & Wansink (2014) suggests that our food purchasing patterns during the holidays influence food purchase patterns after New Year’s.  The authors found that while healthy food purchases increase in January, the non-healthy food purchases stayed at the same level as during the holidays.  That means that we may try to eat more healthy foods after the holidays, but we’re not swapping out the unhealthy indulgences from the holidays with healthier to get back to normal. (So we are still eating processed foods, treats, etc.) More unhealthy food equals no weight loss and possible weight gain.

Another reason that resolutions fail is because they are too vague or too large.  Nelissen, de Vet, & Zeelenberg (2011) found that if the goal was a long way off, there were no negative emotions associated with attaining it (or not attaining it).  However, if the goal was close, there was a high level of negative emotions associated with not attaining it.  This translates to motivation.  When the goal was viewed as something that was not tangible or far away, there was no motivation to attain it.  However, when the goal was in sight, the motivation was strong.

Finally, emotional coping strategies can determine whether a goal will fail.  According to Norcross & Vagarelli (1988), the negative emotion of self-blaming and the positive emotion of wishful thinking determined goal failure.  Self-blaming can be equivalent to perfectionism – if you are starting to work towards a weight loss goal and then you make a mistake, you might feel as if you can’t do the process perfectly, and then give up, especially if you have perfectionist tendencies.  Wishful thinking is equivalent to procrastination.  Consider how may times a person says, “I’ll start the diet tomorrow,” only to push the start day further back on the following day.

Weight loss is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions for a reason.  Many people need to lose weight.  Over 39% of people in the United States are classified as obese (Hales, Carroll, Fryar & Ogden 2017).  Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes (CDC, 2018).  In the case of type 2 diabetes, weight loss significantly reduces the incidence (Wainberg et al., 2019).  If you start exercising with type 2 diabetes, that works even better than the common, blood sugar reducing medication, metformin (Ruegsegger & Booth, 2018).

So now that it’s March, what can you do to get back on track? First off, I believe that we need to stop making resolutions all together.  I know that sounds drastic, but they don’t work.  Why not plan instead?  According to Höchli, Brügger, & Messner (2019), making two types of goals makes you more likely to reach them.  What they suggest is make one overarching goal and then making smaller goals that are steps towards the bigger goal.  They also suggest thinking about why you want to do something and then how to do it.  If you can answer these two questions, then formulate a plan from there – you will be more likely to succeed!

If your weight loss plan involves lowering calories, do it slowly.  Don’t expect yourself to go from the holiday excess to eating low calorie in one day.  Do it over time and you will be more likely to stick to a diet plan.  And, don’t do a diet, work towards healthy eating instead.

Finally, skip the gym membership until you have an idea of what you want and can stick to a routine.  Buying that gym membership without going regularly does two things: frustrate the regular gym-goer and line the pockets of the gyms.  The chart below shows gym membership over time.

Data from Google Trends: https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=gym%20memberships&geo=US

Notice the January spike?  Regular gym-goers hate the gym in January because the gym gets clogged with people who will stop going by the end of the month.  Not only is it frustrating, it also makes you look like a fool because that money you spent on the membership is making the gym owner happy.  They like it when people buy a membership and use the gym sparingly.  Less wear and tear on the equipment means more money in their pocket. Instead, try a simple body weight workout at home to get started.  Here’s one from Nerd Fitness.  If you can’t do all the exercises right away, keep working at it.  It took me a month to do my first push up and six months to do my first pull up.  The more you work at it, the stronger you will become. Then go to the gym after you are ready to make a commitment.

Skip the New Year’s resolutions and work on a plan that you can stick to.  You’ll be glad, and more motivated, that you did.

 

References

  • Hales, C.M., Carroll, M.D., Fryar, C.D., & Ogden, C.L. (2017). Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015–2016. NCHS data brief, no 288. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
  • Höchli, B., Brügger, A., & Messner, C. (2019). Making new year’s resolutions that stick: Exploring how superordinate and subordinate goals motivate goal pursuit. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, aphw.12172. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12172
  • Nelissen, R. M. A., de Vet, E., & Zeelenberg, M. (2011). Anticipated emotions and effort allocation in weight goal striving: Anticipated emotions and goal striving. British Journal of Health Psychology, 16(1), 201–212. https://doi.org/10.1348/135910710X494952
  • Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1(2), 127–134. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0899-3289(88)80016-6
  • Pope, L., Hanks, A. S., Just, D. R., & Wansink, B. (2014). New year’s res-illusions: Food shopping in the new year competes with healthy intentions. PLoS ONE, 9(12), e110561. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0110561
  • Wainberg, M., Mahajan, A., Kundaje, A., McCarthy, M. I., Ingelsson, E., Sinnott-Armstrong, N., & Rivas, M. A. (2019). Homogeneity in the association of body mass index with type 2 diabetes across the UK Biobank: A Mendelian randomization study. PLOS Medicine, 16(12), e1002982. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002982