At the start of the New Year many of us will make resolutions to improve our health. These resolutions can be pretty broad (e.g. get healthy) or specific (e.g. lose 10 lbs), but for many, they can be hard to keep. While maintenance of New Year’s resolutions can be difficult, there are several simple steps that can be taken to ensure that the desired healthy behaviours last, allowing the resolutions to be met and thus benefiting health.

Make a resolution that is concrete and achievable
First, make a resolution that is concrete. While resolutions to “be healthy” or to “eat healthier” sound good, you have to know exactly how you are defining them, otherwise it will be impossible to achieve the goal. For instance, if setting a goal to “eat healthier”, have a clear idea of what “healthy eating” means – i.e. the number of servings of fruits/vegetables, meat/alternatives, dietary intake of healthy fats, etc. that you would like to eat per day.

Next, you want to make sure that the goal is achievable. For instance, is it reasonable to set a goal of getting in shape by going to the gym 5 times a week after work? Do you have the time or energy to devote to this goal? If so, great, if not, consider starting by doing some exercises at home, perhaps during lunch hour, or consider going to the gym 2-3 times per week and increase physical activity (i.e. walking) in normal daily life.

Make a plan and focus on small changes that you can build on
Now that a concrete and achievable goal is in place, it is important to make a plan to how you will achieve your goal. For instance, if the goal is “healthy eating”, a plan is needed which includes a meal plan (portions and serving size, recipes, etc), ensuring time for grocery shopping and food preparation, as well as scheduling in time to eat. In addition, a plan should include a way of monitoring progress. Keeping a diary can be an easy way to check in to evaluate progress.

For many, it may also be best to plan for small changes and work on building on them, as drastic changes to a lifestyle are often more difficult to maintain. For example, if planning on eating a more healthy diet, it might be best to start by addressing one meal per day (breakfast) and building from there, or perhaps starting by adding in one serving of fruits/vegetables per day until the recommended daily amount is achieved.

Making a plan should also include knowledge of triggers or cues for certain behaviours (positive or negative) that may influence change. For instance, if sugar cravings are present at 4 pm, plan for ways to deal with the craving without having a sugary snack (e.g.. have a healthy snack ready to eat, plan to go for small walk, etc.). Also, be aware of external factors that may influence your chance of success. For instance, the type and frequency of advertisements during the months of January or February may change in order to help with healthy changes (e.g. join a gym) or to keep you from them. One study showed that cigarette advertizing (when it was allowed) in print publications increased in the first few months of the year in order to affect people’s resolutions to quit smoking.

Planning for setbacks
In making any lifestyle change, one area that is often overlooked is planning how to deal with setbacks. We will not always be successful in making the change on the first attempt, thus it is important to plan for how to deal with challenges to our goals. The first thing to realize is that you are off course (i.e. have not been doing a behaviour/activity in the past few days/weeks). Then, the next step is to identify the obstacles that ‎influenced your ability to change and make a plan to overcome it in order to get back to the resolution.

Feelings of guilt or perception of failure also plays a role in keeping New Year’s resolutions. While it is common to feel guilt about a perceived lack of success in meeting your goal, it does not mean that you have failed, or that you are unable to meet your goal. At this point, acknowledge your feelings of guilt, look at what/where the challenges are, take steps to address them and get back to the overall plan.

Ask for help
Lastly, consider asking for help. Making a change in our lives is often difficult and we often need help to navigate challenges and overcome beliefs or old habits. Talk to a friend, family member, spouse, or health care provider about the resolution and what support is needed in order to make the resolution last.

Whether it is losing weight, quitting smoking, addressing stress, improving mental health or eating a healthier diet, there are many steps that can be taken to improve the chances of keeping the resolution, and thus benefiting health.

If you have questions about how to keep your health related New Year’s resolutions, how nutrition, physical activity or naturopathic medicine can help you, please call 613-290-6115. Graham Beaton is a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine in practice at Ottawa Collaborative Care Centres – 102 Lewis Street, Ottawa.