New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday. I love the comprehensive look back on another trip around the sun, the taking stock of our successes, our victories, our progress, the reflection on what we did well (and perhaps what we didn’t). For me, the spirit of new beginnings to propel ourselves forward into another year makes it a season of hope.
With this annual renaissance comes the tradition of the New Year’s resolution — our promise to ourselves to be better. Statistically speaking, the most common of these resolutions all revolve around our physical health or appearance: Exercise more, eat healthier and lose weight have been the top three most common resolutions for the past two years, according to Statista surveys.
Unfortunately, the statistics (and plenty of anecdotal evidence) also say that most of us will have given up on these goals by February.
So that’s it, right? We shouldn’t even bother?
Nonsense. I have a few tips that I think can be useful to just about anyone that has their eyes on being healthier in 2023.
I was a kinesiology major in college, and I worked as a personal trainer in Las Vegas. I led my unit at PT sessions for a stretch of time while I was in the Marines. I’ve helped family members, friends, and athletes that I’ve coached with their fitness goals.
All told, I have over 15 years of experience, some official and some not so official, in helping people live a healthier life or get the most out of their body. And even after all of that, some of my best advice I can offer might come from my own struggles to stay in shape and keep the pounds off. Here are my tips on how to turn a New Year’s resolution into a productive habit.
1: SMART goals. If using an acronym to help motivate you to exercise seems cheesy, gimmicky and downright “after-school special,” well, maybe you’re right (after all, SMART goals were literally part of the curriculum when I was a health and physical education teacher). However, as an old Marine buddy of mine used to say, “If it’s stupid and it works, then it’s not stupid.”
One of the biggest pitfalls of those aspiring to a healthier lifestyle is a lack of planning and organization. SMART goals help take a large, daunting and sometimes even intangible task, and make it much more approachable.
A quick Google search will give you infinite results for “SMART goals,” so I’ll be brief here in explaining that SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time.
Write your specific goals down. Long-term goals are great, but give yourself short-term checkpoints to hit along the way, and make them something you can measure to track your progress.
Weight is one metric I hate to see people use, for reasons I’ll explain later, but tracking steps taken, calories burned, weight lifted, repetitions done and anything else of that nature are great ways to give yourself something to feel good about and reinforce your new habit while keeping your eye on the bigger prize.
2: Don’t make comparisons. This can be one of the most difficult things to stick to. Americans endure a barrage of daily reminders of why we aren’t good enough through advertising and other messaging. Most marketing is subtle enough that you don’t even realize that your fear of inadequacy is being played upon unless you are keenly aware and looking for it, and nowhere is this more prevalent than is fitness and dieting.
Don’t fall into this trap. The only person you should compare yourself to is … you.
Your frame of reference should only be the version of you one day, one week, one month before. If you are improving, that is all that matters. Don’t get me wrong, a little healthy competition with a workout partner can be a boon to your workouts, but keep these things all in context and remember that this is about your journey.
And please, for your own sanity, never make the mistake of using Hollywood or Instagram as your measuring stick. The body image issues that it induces aside, it’s just not a productive way to motivate yourself. Trying to look like actors, models and athletes doesn’t pan out, because no one really looks like that, including the majority of the actors, models and athletes.
3: Don’t be afraid of the gym. This goes somewhat hand in hand with item 2. I have seen so many people not want to set foot in a gym because of anxiety, fear of embarrassment, and sheer intimidation from all the equipment in the room and the perception that everyone around them is in better shape and knows what they’re doing.
I’ll reiterate: don’t make comparisons. I’ll also concede that a simple regimen of taking a walk and doing a few planks or push ups a day can be a great way to get you started down the path of a healthier lifestyle without a gym membership. There is beauty in simplicity and a lot of fitness professionals overcomplicate things for people that are just getting started.
However, a gym is a great way to be surrounded by people that are seeing things the same way as you. If you know you are the kind of person that benefits from being part of a team, give the gym a shot.
Yes, there are jerks out there that make YouTube videos of people that don’t know how to use machines and body shame. It is out there, I’m aware of it and it’s disgusting. However, it’s important that I also let you know that there are significantly more people that would be willing to help you learn if you ask, and an even greater percentage are totally locked in on their workout and are paying you no mind.
Not everyone is staring at you, I promise. In fact, chances are, no one is.
4: Step away from the scale. It’s true, our body weight is measurable and quantifiable through easily accessible equipment, so it often feels like one of the ideal ways to track progress, as I said to do in item 1.
However, stepping on the scale does more harm than good — especially for women — in my experience. There are so many things going on as your body adjusts to a fitness regimen that pounds of pressure applied to a machine can’t tell you.
You’ll likely be gaining muscle mass, holding more water weight as you hydrate more frequently, and probably eating larger meals, as any sort of resistance training is going to make you hungry. Don’t fight it.
Instead, look in the mirror. If you’re getting healthier, you’ll see it in your eyes, your hair, your skin. You’ll probably notice your body starting to change in shape a bit.
Be mindful of how you actually feel. Are you sleeping better? More able to focus? Getting up and down the stairs with more ease? Eating better because you don’t want to negate the effect of your hard work? These may not be as quantifiable, but they will keep you from the dreaded discouragement of not seeing the number on the scale budge.
5: Forgive yourself. Last but certainly not least, you need to forgive yourself for missteps along the way. Again, be realistic. If you can’t eat chicken and rice for 365 days of the year, be honest with yourself. First of all, it’s neither realistic, nor sustainable. Second of all, we all need to cut loose every now and then.
A little bit of junk food, sine alcohol, a night that you come up a little short on sleep — these are all things that are viewed negatively and not part of the equation when we set out to be healthier. Then, when people inevitably stumble and indulge a bit in the things they enjoy, they often decide all is lost and fall back into old habits.
Don’t make this mistake. Embrace being a human being and plan ahead for this. It’s okay to have a “cheat” day. Build it into your routine. This is another reason it’s so important to track your progress, so you can clearly see that the arrow is still pointed in the right direction, even if some days are better than others.
If you rule yourself with an iron fist, you’ll often only encourage rebellion. Continue to enjoy the things you always have (unless, of course, it’s a matter of addiction or a true life and death situation), just do so in moderation.