Rachel Sufczynski, MSES, CEP, is a clinical exercise physiologist and health coach specializing in exercise, nutrition, self-care and behavior change.
It’s that time of year again, when diet and exercise equipment commercials take over our televisions. When someone says New Year’s, the word resolution often quickly follows, even though there’s nothing particularly magical about making resolutions at the beginning of the new year. Whether it’s January 1 or August 26, the day you choose to start your health journey doesn’t impact how successful you’ll be.
So, what can make you successful?
Start small and try your best to avoid succumbing to an all-or-nothing mentality. Lasting lifestyle changes — such as to your exercise routines, nutrition, sleep habits or stress-relief strategies — require flexibility. It’s a journey with some wins and some setbacks. Recognizing that our journeys aren’t perfect will make sustaining change a lot easier, too.
One of the challenges with New Year’s resolutions is that the very word — resolution — feels so final. The word goal, on the other hand, can be a beacon to guide you toward something rather than a hard-and-fast rule. The difference is significant because, when we treat things as black or white, there’s no room for error. But, to be human is to make mistakes. Setting goals is a more forgiving place to begin, understanding that perfection is impossible. Strive toward your goal, but give yourself permission to lose your way.
I suggest starting small and focusing on one thing at a time. Gradual changes will feel less overwhelming and will better prevent burn out. So, think about what you can do today, knowing that you can always change your methods tomorrow, next week or next month. If, for example, losing weight is your goal, could you start by adding more vegetables into your diet? What if you tried walking for just five minutes once or twice a week? These are stepping stones on your health journey. Make sure whatever goal you set is SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. And, most important, recognize your small victories as progress and be kind to yourself.
Next, you’ll have to identify what motivates you, which can be especially tricky during the dark, cold winter months. Because, let’s be honest, we’d all rather snuggle up in bed than hit the trail when the temperatures plunge. To help coax you out from under the covers, write down how you feel when you accomplish a healthy behavior — proud, happy, successful? Keep this list handy and pull it out when you’re struggling for motivation. You can also try calling a friend to help keep you accountable or marking your calendar when you accomplish your healthy behavior. Maybe other external factors will encourage you, like buying new sneakers or starting a new workout program. Mixing these internal and external motivators can be a powerful way to stay engaged.
Once you’ve got the motivation to make change, the next step is figuring out what to apply it toward.
If adding exercise is a goal, try starting with the workout you like the most — or hate the least! Next, find a day of the week when you have the most control over your time and the fewest obligations. Start where you are. Begin with 15 minutes once a week, and then try increasing to twice a week. Keep building gradually. Whether you’re an exercise beginner or a gym rat, try new things until you find what feels good for your body. There’s a lot of online content to dig into, which is also a great Covid-safety hack if you don’t feel comfortable in a gym. But the best part is that if you don’t enjoy something, no one will know you turned the video off, so feel free to treat this as an exploration to see what works best for your spirit and your body.
Also, remember, there’s no one magic exercise. You can do just about anything: dancing, hula hooping, hopscotch, walking backward. It all counts, and there’s always an alternative option. Squats hurt your knees? Try chair standups. There are only a few real rules: If it hurts, don’t do it. Something is always better than nothing. And, yes, you should always make time to stretch. Stretching daily helps you avoid injury and does wonders for decreasing body aches and pains. Be sure to explore the difference between dynamic stretching and static stretching to keep your muscles loose and your joints injury-free.
If eating better is a goal, try looking at what you already love to eat. One of the easiest ways to achieve a healthier diet is not necessarily to change what’s on your plate, but to try to balance it so that half contains fruits and veggies, a quarter is lean protein, and a quarter is healthy carbs. Another simple and effective tool is cutting your portions. If you don’t know where to start, try tracking your meals to get a handle on your calorie intake and to stay accountable for your choices.
Also, remember to eat regular meals and snacks. If you happen to also eat a piece of cake, don’t beat yourself up. You’re not a bad person or a failure. You just ate some cake!
Underscoring all of this is the importance of good sleep and reducing stress when you can. No matter what lifestyle change you’re making, it’s going to be a lot harder to do when you’re harried and exhausted.
For better sleep, it’s important to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every night, aiming for seven to eight hours of sleep total. Avoid screens, alcohol and caffeine before bed and keep a journal nearby to write down any to-dos or thoughts that are keeping you up.
The most effective strategies for alleviating stress tend to be different for everyone. Still, some proven tactics include meditation, yoga, journaling, listening to music or talking to a professional therapist, if that’s available to you. Try paying attention to your anxiety, rather than ignoring it, and write down how you feel before or after any intervention. If something helped alleviate stress, keep doing it! Making a list of ways that might help you effectively cope with stress, when you’re not actually feeling stressed, is a great trick. Pull the list out any time you need a moment of Zen.
Behavior change and creating healthier habits is never simple — especially when you get caught up in an all-or-nothing mentality. Giving ourselves only two options, success or failure, contradicts the reality of what behavior change, and life in general, is like. We’re all human and imperfect, so as you work toward your lifestyle goals this year, remember to start small, build gradually, remain flexible and be kind to yourself.
If you didn’t meet your goals today, try again, guilt-free, tomorrow. This way, you’re not bad or good, a failure or a success. You’re simply on a journey toward better health. That takes commitment and a willingness to prioritize yourself, which is not easy for most people, especially women.
Taking care of yourself and your health is not only OK, it’s one of the most important things you can do — for yourself and everyone you love.