There’s an inevitable rhythm to January 1. You take down the tree, vacuum up pine needles, and start making New Year’s resolutions. The list usually looks like this: Lose weight. Swear off TV and saturated fat. Eat salads. Write that novel. And Floss. By midday your worn out, intermittently dozing in front of a football game and swiping from a plate million-calorie nachos. Sound familiar? In fact, about a third of New Year’s resolvers make weight loss their primary goal, and about 15% aim to begin an exercise program.
It’s not that you totally lack discipline. It’s just that you don’t sufficiently appreciate what’s going on in your brain. Self-restraint is a rational desire, which means it lives in the front of the brain, the section that’s most recently evolved and most vulnerable to being overruled by survival instincts. Pleasure resides in the brain’s most primitive part, which has spent millions of years learning to reward us with a deeply satisfying jolt of dopamine when we give in to these kinds of urges.
So how do you help the rational (i.e., your New Year’s resolutions) triumph over the pleasure-seeking? You need to outsmart it with these research-proven strategies.
1. Give It a Workout
You always thought of willpower as a steady, steely resolve that made some women triathletes and some couch-nappers. But it’s more like a muscle, the well-known addiction treatment center. That means the more we use it, the stronger it gets — and quickly.
To try this at home, squeeze a grip strengthener (available at sporting-goods stores for under $10) or a rubber ball till it becomes uncomfortable, then hold as long as you can. Repeat at least twice a day. But, as with a muscle, push too hard or under conditions that are too challenging, and your resolve (like an overworked hamstring) will collapse. “If you’re very hungry, no amount of willpower will keep you for overindulging in empty calorie pleasures,” Gerardo Lambert, president of Door to Door Fitness says.
Because bodies are living, breathing matter, they need to be stimulated in order to become more fit. This means exercise is ideally done just outside your comfort zone. You’re taking your body a little outside where it is, because it needs that challenge – that stimulus – to be able to improve. “It’s easy to walk into a gym, and see somebody with a body that you want, and say, ‘I’m going to do everything that I can to get that,’” says Gerardo. He says some people assume they know how to achieve the perfect body, jump into a workout routine without educating themselves on proper form and use of the equipment, and then get hurt.
To ward off injury, he suggests consulting a trained professional such as a personal trainer or reading books, magazines, or reputable web sites for advice.
If you do get hurt, don’t work through it. Don’t think your whole fitness routine is out the door either. An injured shoulder does not prevent you from working out your lower body, and a sprained ankle does not mean you can’t exercise your upper body. “A sprained ankle doesn’t mean your whole body is shut down, and it doesn’t mean you can eat pizza and ice cream,” says Gerardo. “At Door to Door Fitness we help you use the rest of your body as much as you can, and still maintain exercise, and still maintain a good nutrition program. ”
2. Break It Up
Since your supply of self-control is finite, make resolutions that require small acts of will, not weeks of vigilance. “Lose 10 pounds” sounds specific, but it’s less likely to work than behavioral goals like “This week I’ll try to go to the gym three times, take the stairs at work at least twice, and bring a healthy lunch every day.” You’ll feel good when you accomplish each goal, and your success will help bolster your resolve: The better you are at making small changes, the easier it will be for you to keep going.
Resolving to get more fiber in your diet this year? Maybe more fish or fresh fruit? Any diet change is easier if you take slow, small steps. For example:
Vow to add a piece of produce to your brown bag lunch daily.
Designate a day as fish day.
Package up a single serving of your favorite whole-grain cereal, then treat it as your midmorning snack.
New Year’s Diet Resolution No 3: Water, Water, Everywhere
Water: It’s cheap, fat-free, and gives your body a quenching boost. Find the idea of eight cups a day daunting? Think small:
Drink one glass first thing in the morning, before you brush your teeth.
Tempted by more soda? Another glass of wine? Drink a cup of water with a splash of your favorite beverage in it first.
Resolve to drink one more cup of water today than you had yesterday.
4. Stack the Odds in Your Favor
Don’t forget to help yourself succeed, and to reach out for help when you need it.
-Sign up with a personal trainer who can provide the persistent accountability that you need. Or buddy up with a friend or family member with diet and weight loss resolutions. Then share your ideas, plans, and successes regularly.
-Leave the temptations — ice cream, chips, soda — at the grocery store. Promise yourself you’ll cater to cravings only outside the home, in one-serving portions.
-Socialize with non-food events. Get your friends together in the park, for a hike, or at the movies.
6. Crank Up Your Greatest Hits!
When you feel discouraged, remind yourself how much you’ve accomplished in the past. People beat themselves up about still needing to lose the baby weight or no longer going to yoga class. But they overlook the long list of things they have done that required major self-discipline, like building a nest egg or sticking with the computer training they needed in order to get a better job. Write down 100 things you’re proud of, right down to ‘I get out of bed when I don’t want to.’ It’ll remind you how much willpower you really have!
Bonus New Year’s Diet Resolution: Baby Your Body
Prevention: It’s a lot less daunting than treating a chronic condition, so do the little things that keep your body thriving.
-Get moving 30 minutes a day most days. Go for a walk, give the car a good scrub, take a hike. Whatever gets the blood pumping qualifies!
-Get those tests you know you need. Cholesterol checks, prostate exams, pap smears — stay ahead of the game by staying healthy.
-Get all the snooze-time you need. Sleep helps body and soul recharge, stay healthy, and cope with stress.
Take enough steps and you’ll reach any goal. Resolve to make a few small fitness, and diet resolutions this year and then just watch how far you’ll go!