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Looking to keep up a New Year’s resolution? It’s best to start small

New Year’s resolutions, such as fitness and weight goals, should be small and attainable.  (Susan Ballenger/Sacramento Bee)
By Michael Lee | Tribune news service

It’s the start of 2022, which for many means once again setting New Year’s resolutions.

And for those who want to keep up their resolutions this year, experts say to start small.

According to a 2020 survey from comparison website Finder, 45.6% of 141.1 million American adults said they wanted to make health-related New Year’s resolutions for 2021. But another 2020 survey from data analytics site YouGov found that 49% of people who made resolutions kept some but not all, while 16% did not keep any at all.

What’s in a New Year’s resolution?

Sophie Lazarus, a clinical psychologist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, said one of the biggest reasons why people make New Year’s resolutions is that it’s a “strong, cultural piece” in today’s society.

She added that New Year’s resolutions can be hard to stick with because in general, habits are powerful and hard to change.

“There are just so many forces and responsibilities and pressures that make it very unrealistic that we have the capacity, the energy, to make a big change,” she said. Especially when the pandemic is added to the mix.

COVID has made everyday decisions more difficult and disrupted people’s ability to access things that often reinforce and support their moods, such as in-person book clubs, exercise classes and work meetings.

“We were hoping if we just kind of held out long enough that they would return,” she said. “But I think we’re realizing we have to be adaptable, and find new and different sources of support and reinforcement for our mood, because things are not quite returning to exactly how they were.”

And so when people fall off track from a habit, such as a resolution, Lazarus said it can reinforce a problematic avoidance mindset. But it’s best not to keep putting it off when you fall off track, she said.

“It reinforces this way of thinking of like, ‘I fell off track with this habit, I’ll just start next week, or I’ll just start next month,’” Lazarus said. “Why not start fresh or start new in the next moment: ‘So I fell off track here today, I’m going to start fresh this afternoon.’ ”

Starting small, setting goals

Lazarus said it’s best for people to set smaller goals in the new year instead of large, sweeping resolutions.

Personal trainer Alexandra Craig agrees that smaller goals are the way to go. Craig is the owner of a Personal Level Fitness in Ohio.

Her gym helps clients with setting long-term goals instead of resolutions like trying to lose 10 pounds in a month.

“I think they set themselves up to fail because they don’t know where to start a lot of times,” she said. “When people first do their New Year’s resolutions, it’s that short-term tunnel vision instead of, ‘I’m going to work on this one thing, and then add, and add, and add and do more of a habit-based program.”

She added that in order for people to keep up with these smaller goals, they can just make tweaks to their goals to make them more realistic.

“I always give people a 1 to 10 confidence scale. One is absolutely not, I am not going to climb Mount Everest tomorrow, and 10 is like, ‘Yeah, I can walk out to my car and grab my cellphone for you,’ ” Craig said. “If you can’t do it forever, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”

And that’s the same for resolutions like healthy eating: keep the pressure low. In fact, licensed dietitian Lindsey Mathes said not to focus on weight loss, as it can be dangerous.

Mathes, who focuses on preventing eating disorders and disordered eating with her clients, said things like diets don’t work, and that healthy eating is more about a behavior change.

“The vast majority of eating disorders get started very innocently – there is a drive for feeling healthier, losing weight, and it flips a switch,” she said.

Mathes said those who want to start healthy food habits in the New Year should contact an intuitive eating dietitian in order to overcome barriers – like emotional eating as a coping mechanism – that would prevent someone from making the changes they want.

But for those who cannot or do not want to, she said to read books like “Health at Every Size” by Linda Bacon so they can have a better understanding of what healthy eating means for their body.

“I want people to ultimately be educated, but to develop a sense of compassion toward themselves to get curious rather than be judgmental,” she said. “Get started no matter how small it seems.”