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Rethinking New Years Resolutions-- How to Create Better Health, Fitness and Diet Goals for 2024


water, dumbbells, salad


As the holiday season comes upon us, so do the festive social gatherings that can lead to the enjoyment of more delicious food, drinks, and desserts than usual. This, coupled with the new year right around the corner, the tradition of making ambitious health and fitness or diet-focused resolutions is an all too common tradition. And let’s face it, breaking these resolutions within a few weeks is just as common a tradition as making them in the first place!  But what if we could set resolutions that are smarter, easier to stick to, and contribute to our well-being in the long run?



Before we dive in, there's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to boost nutrition, fitness, and overall health after the holidays. This is referred to as the “fresh-start effect” where goals center around a time-related milestone—like the start of a new year (1). I'm all for health goals…at any time of year. So, let me share some tips to help you achieve success and well-being beyond the typical New Year's resolutions.

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Why we should rethink health, fitness and diet-focused New Year’s resolutions

Research tells us that most folks abandon their New Year's resolutions before the end of January (2,3).  It's not anyone's fault; resolutions are often too ambitious, rigid, framed negatively, and attempted without support—making them challenging to stick with. (And let’s be honest here, the most common resolution is to lose X amount of weight– and that is all of those things - rigid, framed negatively, and often too ambitious)


Let’s talk about a different way of making health goals. A way that is more achievable, sustainable, and can more easily become lifelong regular habits.


Fun Fact: Out of all the personal goals people make New Year's Resolutions about, two out of every three revolve around health, fitness, diet/eating habits and weight loss (1).



Let's think about diet-focused resolutions for a moment.


Firstly, there's no physiological reason to wait for a specific date to start making healthier choices. You can begin by eating slower, opting for a fruit or veggie, and stopping when you're satisfied at your very next meal—no need to wait for a certain date to start. You can decide to implement your “fresh start” goal right here and now!


Secondly, the motivation behind many diet-focused goals may have unhealthy origins. Rather than coming from a place of love, empowerment, and future health, there are many not-so-healthy reasons some people make diet-focused New Year’s resolutions:

  • Because others around them (or online) are doing so (The overwhelming desire to fit in or our society’s pressure on us to fit into a certain box)  

  • Feeling guilty about the current health status (The comparison trap) 

  • Using “New Years Resolutions” as a “free pass” to overindulge during the holidays with the idea to “lock it down” in the New Year (2)


Thirdly, diet-focused goals are often unrealistic and unattainable.This means the problem is the goal itself, not the person who is unable to meet the goal. These goals can lead to disappointment, shame, guilt, and possibly even worse health habits or outcomes. Some experts believe there may be a link between certain diet-focused New Year’s goals and worsened well-being (3). Plus, unrealistic health goals may spark or contribute to yo-yo dieting. 


A better way to set health, fitness or diet goals

Let's shift our focus to a more achievable, sustainable approach. Studies suggest that certain types of goals contribute to well-being. Here are some research-backed strategies for making better health goals:


1. Have more flexible goals



A 2021 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that people with flexible New Year’s resolutions reported greater well-being over time  (3). 


What makes a goal flexible? Researchers define goal flexibility as, “the ability to view setbacks with equanimity and adjust goal pursuit as required.” 


This positive impact of having more flexible goals may be because when reaching a goal becomes difficult, adjusting the goal itself may help to maintain a sense of well-being. The ability to respond to challenges and opportunities helps us “to feel more autonomous in relation to the self and the future,” said the study authors (3).


2. Have more flexibility in how goals can be reached


That same 2021 study also looked at the outcome of “goal tenacity,” which is being more persistent when obstacles to reaching goals appear. The rigidity in how goals are reached was harmful to some because it chipped away at their sense of well-being (3).


Why are there negative effects of too much goal tenacity or rigidity? The rigidity or tenacity can also lead to an “all-or-nothing” approach. This can cause goal-setters to abandon the goal altogether, rather than adjust the actions needed to reach the goal. Also, being inflexible in the process of achieving goals is linked to perfectionism, depression, and anxiety (3).


3. Set goals around the positive outcomes you’d like to achieve (rather than the negative outcomes you want to avoid)



A 2020 study published in the journal PLoS One found that “participants with approach-oriented goals were significantly more successful than those with avoidance-oriented goals” (1). An approach-oriented goal is one where your goal is to achieve a positive result (4). For example, aim for approach-oriented goals—achieving positive results rather than avoiding negative outcomes (1). For instance, focus on getting fitter/stronger and eating more vegetables rather than losing weight.



4. Enlist support


That same 2020 study found that  having social support increases your likelihood of reaching your goals (4). Having a friend/family member or dietitian cheering you on can make a positive difference.



Examples of better health, fitness and diet goals

Now, let's explore some small, flexible health goals that can become long-term habits. Remember to set them from a place of love and not all days have to be "perfect" to succeed:


Snack smarter (on most days)


Small snacks can add up to a big impact over time. Instead of pre-packaged, processed snacks, commit to eating fruit and nuts as snacks three or four times per week. 


Choose water (a couple of times a day)


Water is a great way to hydrate while reducing the amount of added sugar that comes from many types of drinks. 


Practice eating more mindfully (at least once a day)


Beyond what you choose to eat and drink, is how you eat and drink. By slowing down and savoring the aromas, tastes, and textures of food, you can enjoy food even more. Try having your meals at a table (not a desk or in the car), ignoring all devices and screens while eating, chewing the food well, and putting the spoon or fork down to relax a bit between bites. Mindful eating may also help to realize when we’re satisfied with food, preventing unnecessary overindulgence (2). 


Listen to your body and be kind to yourself


Part of health and well-being is how you treat yourself and your body. Setting and reaching health goals does not guarantee happiness, nor make you more worthy of love and kindness than you are right now. You are enough and deserve respect. Make self-love, self-care, and kindness—regardless of challenges or discouragement—goals too (5,6). 


You are the person who is most able to feel gratitude and appreciate yourself every day of the year—whether you reach other goals or not. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You haven’t failed and you don’t have to give up. Keep listening to your body and being kind, no matter what (5,6).



Final Thoughts

Choosing our health goals wisely can impact how long we stick with them and our overall well-being. It's common for challenges to arise, so go easy on yourself. Flexibility, positive goals, and support can enhance your health journey and make your new habits more sustainable.


Remember, you can make attainable goals for a healthier lifestyle any day of the year, even today.


Need help with your health goals? As a registered dietitian, I’m here to help!! Send me an email now to get started on your journey to a healthier you!  



Jenny Lo, MS RD

Wellness and Sports Dietetics

(c) 2023



References

(1) Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year's resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PloS one, 15(12), e0234097. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097


(2) Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2019, January). Re-thinking your New Year’s resolutions. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2013/12/20/re-thinking-your-new-years-resolutions/


(3) Dickson, J. M., Moberly, N. J., Preece, D., Dodd, A., & Huntley, C. D. (2021). Self-Regulatory Goal Motivational Processes in Sustained New Year Resolution Pursuit and Mental Wellbeing. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(6), 3084. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18063084


(4) Pychyl, T. (2009, February 8). Approaching Success, Avoiding the Undesired: Does Goal Type Matter? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/dont-delay/200902/approaching-success-avoiding-the-undesired-does-goal-type-matter


(5) Canadian Mental Health Association. (2022, December 7). Rethinking your New Year’s resolutions. https://cmha.ca/news/rethinking-resolutions/


(6) Bradley, G. (n.d.). 7 New Year's Resolutions That Will Actually Make You Feel Good. National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/7-new-years-resolutions-will-actually-make-you-feel-good


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