Resolutions that stick

Joyce Hanna, MA, MS, Associate Director for Stanford University’s Health Improvement Program, spoke to HealthySteps to Wellness about the ever-popular (but rarely successful) “New Year’s Resolutions” of exercising more and getting in shape. Turns out we can make those resolutions pay off, if we stick to a few simple guidelines.

Many of us have made resolutions to exercise more in the New Year. Yet, statistics show that less than 50% of people who make resolutions will maintain them after six months. Why is it so difficult to keep our promises to get fit?

The number one reason why people do not keep their resolutions is because such resolutions are  unrealistic and based on what they think they “should” be doing. Research has shown that the greatest success comes when we set short-term, realistic, behavioral goals — based on what we have been doing previously — that will gradually lead to sustainable change. You can still have an ambitious long-term goal, but focus instead on the small steps toward getting there.

If you have not been exercising for the past year, a resolution likely to be successful is: “I will walk for ten minutes twice a week,” rather than “I will walk for 30 minutes every day.” You will have a good chance of success with the realistic first goal, which is based on what you have been doing previously. Your success also has the potential to motivate you, if you want, to then set and reach a more ambitious long-term goal.

What are some recommendations to help people stick to their fitness resolutions?

Other than setting realistic goals, and after you have gathered the necessary information about what you plan to do, you need to focus on what benefits you expect if you follow this fitness resolution. Is it to run a 5k race? Is it to walk up stairs without breathing so heavily? Is it to feel firm and fit and strong? Is it to help you with weight management? Is it to reduce your risk for heart disease? It is important to have the benefit clear in your mind, so when you begin to waver, you can vividly remember exactly what it is you want and commit yourself again to your resolution. You might even want to write your goal on a “post-it note” to place on your bathroom mirror.

Identify the helpful people you consider your supporters and share your goals with family or friends. Let such supporters know how you want them to support you. Most of us want our good behavior to be noted without being nagged about our lapses.

You also need to identify some obstacles that might get in your way and think about strategies to deal with those obstacles. For instance, if your friend cannot walk or run with you that day, what will you do? If the gym doesn’t work out for you, what will be your next choice?

In short, the more you think about and plan your fitness resolution, the more success you will have!

Short, dark days and cold weather can be obstacles to getting outside and being physically active. What tips can you share about how to overcome these challenges?

If darkness is interfering with your normal exercise routine, you may need to get creative. We all need backup plans for changes in weather, seasons, and our schedules. It’s a good idea to plan ahead for things that will get in the way because it’s almost certain that something will get in the way!

  • Gather some co-workers and walk briskly during your lunch break or just take off by yourself for some quiet alone-time.
  • Plan a couple of outdoor activities, such as a hike or bike ride with friends or family over the weekend.
  • If early morning or evenings are your only times to exercise, give the gym a try, or sign up for an exercise class.
  •  If finances are not an issue, you could also consider hiring a personal trainer to come to your home. If you prefer exercising at home, try a workout home video or a TV exercise class.
  •  Use this opportunity to add something new to your lifestyle. You might find that you enjoy it. You will have an alternative exercise whenever your regular exercise time is interrupted and you will be less controlled by the season and weather.

It’s often hard to squeeze in a workout along with busy schedules. What suggestions do you have for finding time to exercise?

In spite of your good intentions, there are certain times you just do not have time to do your planned exercise program. The most important thing to remember is that something is better than nothing. A study done at the Stanford School of Medicine showed that breaking up a 30-minute exercise time into three shorter ten-minute segments produced significant health benefits. The message: do something, anything — but keep doing it!

Suggest to friends and family a “talk while we walk” date instead of a coffee or lunch date. Take advantage of the walking you’re doing while shopping. Walk briskly! We all need to use every opportunity to move, even when we’ve exercised that day. Take the stairs, park far away, schedule meetings outside the office, walk down the hall to deliver a message instead of sending an e-mail, set a timer every 30 minutes to stand up and move. Why not make a list of all the ways that you can get your body moving during the day?

If you resist having an all-or-nothing attitude toward exercise, and keep in mind instead that something is always better than nothing, you will find that you can maintain your fitness level even during the busiest of times.

Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna Ryan.