According to YouGov, in 2020, 27% of Americans made New Year’s resolutions. The most common goals are unsurprising: to exercise more (46% of respondents), improve diet (45%), lose weight (44%), and save money (41%). In surprisingly positive news, roughly half of all respondents said they partially met their commitments, and 35% said they kept all of their resolutions. A paltry 16% admitted to not keeping any of the promises they’d made to themselves. Maybe it was the champagne talking?
Behavioral experts have long used the acronym SMART to guide people in making resolutions. Generally, SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timebound. As explained by MindTools, goals should always be specific so that you know what you’re aiming to achieve. Measurable goals help you set your expectations to know when you’ve achieved your intention. For example, saying “I will eat healthfully” is neither specific nor measurable.
Sometimes, we make goals not because we care but because society or someone close to us has made us feel that we should. These “should” goals are irrelevant and are generally destined to fail. Maybe the idea is fine, but this isn’t the right time to go for it, or other priorities in your life take precedence at the moment. In this case, there’s nothing wrong with setting it to the side and returning to it later. Lastly, every resolution needs a deadline to keep you motivated.
Resolution to Consider: Exercise to Improve Function
Functional exercise may just be the future of fitness. According to NASM, functional fitness focuses on simultaneously improving cardiorespiratory wellness, improving movement and posture, and bettering body composition. One example of functional fitness: by regularly doing deadlifts, you’ll be able to lift heavy boxes off your porch without injuring yourself. By paying attention to how you move during your workouts, you will be better able to rotate, hinge at the hips, and push or pull when called upon to do so in your daily life.
NASM explains that while CrossFit may incorporate some functional fitness principles, CrossFit is, at its core, a sport that requires skilled movements not based on functional fitness. The moves practiced in functional fitness use more than one muscle group at the same time to more closely replicate how we move in real life. By focusing on form rather than mass and force, we can build up a fitness level that will help us prevent injury and age with grace.
Resolution to Avoid: Exercise to Burn Calories
Most of us have suffered the indignity of sweating it out for hours only to watch the scale stay stuck on the same weight for weeks. If you weigh 155 pounds, you will burn 500 calories in an hour of high-impact aerobics; you need to burn 3,500 calories more than you eat in a week to lose one measly pound.
As Jennifer Kuk, a kinesiologist at York University in Toronto, explained it to Discover, “Typically, people can lose much more from caloric restriction than from exercise simply because the caloric expenditure with your typical exercise regime — 30 minutes most days a week — doesn’t translate to very much weight loss.” She further elaborates that if the average person started to exercise for about half an hour on most days without changing anything else, they might lose a pound a month.
Unfortunately, some people gain weight when starting an exercise program, often because they unintentionally eat more, as proven by research from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. It appears that the more you exercise, the more you are likely to eat, according to this study. It’s hard to believe that just 100 extra calories each day (the amount in one ounce of cheese or nuts) can pack on the pounds over time, but it most certainly can.
Where exercise shines is in helping people to maintain weight loss over time, as indicated by a study completed at the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center and published in Obesity, those participants who maintained a weight loss of 30 pounds or more for at least a year expended 180 more calories per day via physical activity than control participants with normal body weight. The weight-loss-maintainers also walked an average of 12,000 steps per day, significantly more than the 9,000 steps walked by participants with normal body weight and the 6,500 steps walked by those participants who were overweight or obese.
Resolution to Consider: Be Conscious of Added Sugar
You’ve almost certainly consumed too much added sugar today, and it is not your fault! The top sources of sugar in the American diet are sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks and desserts, but foods that you would never expect contain insidious amounts. Even your yogurt, tomato sauce, and oatmeal are likely chock-full of the sweet stuff. This sugar that is so prevalent in our food supply is possibly connected to obesity, diabetes, liver disease, tooth decay, and heart disease (via the Mayo Clinic). Foods that are the highest in sugar are also the most likely to be deficient in nutrients we need, like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. It’s not the natural sugar in fruits, vegetables, legumes, or milk that is a problem.
The American Heart Association recommends a limit of 100 calories from added sugar for women each day (six teaspoons) and 150 calories (nine teaspoons) for men). A Snickers candy bar contains about six teaspoons, which you might expect, but a cup of frosted Mini-Wheats (25 biscuits) contains three teaspoons. Raise your hand if you can easily eat more than a cup of cereal in the morning. While no one suggests that you become obsessive about label reading, you should learn to look at the added sugar content of the processed foods you choose.
Resolution to Avoid: Cut Out All Carbohydrates
According to US News, the Atkins diet allows 20 grams of “net carbs” a day, 12 to 15 of which should come from high-fiber vegetables, including arugula and Brussels sprouts. It’s based on the premise that limiting carbohydrates forces the body to burn stored fat for energy. The diet was ranked #33 of 39 diets evaluated in 2021 overall. It was also ranked #2 in Best Fast Weight-Loss Diet, #32 in Best Heart-Healthy Diets, and #27 in Best Diabetes Diets. In essence, it’s the bottom of the barrel for everything except quick weight loss.
And that weight loss, according to the expert panel, is predominantly brought about by the loss of water weight. According to a systematic review of 120 studies published in the British Medical Journal, although low-carbohydrate diets were associated with a greater reduction in body weight and blood pressure compared to other weight loss diets, these effects were blunted at 12 months compared to six months.
People who adhere to the Atkins diet can expect to cope with weakness, dizziness, mood changes, bad breath, and gastrointestinal distress in the short term. According to a study published in the European Heart Journal, among the nearly 25,000 participants who had participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 1999-2010, those who ate the least carbohydrate were 32% more likely to die prematurely from any cause compared to the participants who ate the most. Participants in the low carbohydrate group were also 51% more likely to die from coronary heart disease, 50% more likely to die from cerebrovascular disease, and 35% more likely to die of cancer. This was especially true of older and non-obese people.
Resolution to Consider: Change your Sleep Hygiene Habits
We’ve all spent a miserable night either exhausted and crunching away at the computer, propping our eyes open with toothpicks, or miserably tossing and turning in a comfy bed that has somehow transformed into a torture chamber. But when this becomes a regular occurrence, your physical and mental health takes a nosedive. A lack of sleep impairs blood glucose management and increases both blood pressure and inflammation — leading to a scary escalation in our risk of developing heart disease and weight gain. This cascade can also cause our immunity to plummet and can exacerbate mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Additionally, upward of 100,000 automobile accidents, and 1,550 related deaths each year, are attributed to exhaustion (via the Sleep Foundation).
In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), one additional hour of sleep each night decreased the five-year incidence of coronary artery calcification by an impressive 33% and reduced systolic blood pressure by an average of 16.5 mmHg. In another study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the duration and quality of sleep were strongly correlated with HbA1c levels (a measure of the average blood glucose over several months). Sleep deprivation to four hours a night for five days reduced glucose tolerance by 40% and insulin response by 30% in a laboratory setting.
Sleep hygiene is all about setting yourself up for a restful night. By making sure that your bedroom is dark and at an appropriate temperature, taking time to relax before bed, setting electronics to silent and avoiding them completely in the hour leading up to bedtime, you can increase your chances of enjoying the kind of rejuvenating sleep that helps to ward off a plethora of chronic diseases.
Resolution to Avoid: Do Something Fun Every Day
Have you heard of “revenge bedtime procrastination”? In 2014, the phrase was coined in a study appearing in Frontiers in Psychology. It refers to putting off sleep in order to participate in leisure and entertainment activities that you don’t have time for during the day – for example, watching television, playing video games, or crafting.
A research paper published in the same journal in 2018 determined that those under the most stress and individuals who had the least downtime during the day were most likely to adopt these behaviors. In other words, many of us are trying to make up for the precious time that we feel that we’ve lost due to demands and pressures put on us by others. We want some “me time” and are willing to sacrifice sleep to get it.
In an interview with Medical News Today, Sara Makin, M.S.Ed., NCC, LPC, founder and CEO of online counseling practice Makin Wellness, and Lee Chambers, M.Sc. M.B.Ps.S., an environmental psychologist and well-being consultant stated that people who work long days, especially 12 hours or more, work into the evening and on weekends, and who are expected to work overtime are more likely to indulge in these nocturnal behaviors.
Societal pressure to succeed at hobbies and wellness-related activities worsens the problem. Women and students are the most likely to struggle with these habits, as are Millennials and Generation Z-ers.
Resolution to Consider: Focus on How Food Makes You Feel
Sometimes, your attempts at healthy eating can leave you feeling worse than ever. Slashing your calories too much can leave you feeling run-down and irritable. This kind of behavior will also set you up to enter into an endless cycle of dieting and “falling off the wagon”. It’s also important to eat roughly every four hours; going for longer can cause your blood sugar to crash and fatigue to set in — even an apple and some almond butter should help you regain some momentum in the middle of a busy day.
Like we talked about above, those low-carbohydrate diets result in a lot of water loss and can cause dehydration, which equals tiredness. According to Elizabeth DeRobertis, a registered dietitian and director of the Nutrition Center at Scarsdale Medical Group, White Plains Hospital, “For every gram of carbohydrate stored in the body, there is approximately two to three grams of water retained…when someone feels a dip in energy in the afternoon, I always think of a plant that is wilted, and in need of water” (via CNN).
Resolution to Avoid: Lose X Pounds
Weight loss diets usually fail. That’s partly because diets are, as the name suggests, temporary. You don’t “go on” or “fall off” permanent lifestyle changes. In a very large study published in the British Medical Journals, researchers reviewed 121 trials that included over 21,000 overweight or obese adults who followed 14 popular diets for an average of six months. The diets included the popular Atkins diet, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), and the Mediterranean diet. The diets were categorized as low-carbohydrate, low-fat, and moderate-macronutrient. As you might expect, weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol measures were better after six months of following any diet than they had been at baseline. Unfortunately, they had returned to what they had been at baseline within the year.
The sole exception was that LDL stayed down for the participants who had been on the Mediterranean diet. Though participants on the low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets had averaged a ten-pound weight loss at the six-month mark, they had regained most of that weight within one year. The authors concluded that people wanting to lose weight should choose whatever plan they thought that they could stick with for the long haul.
The researchers explain that it’s better to focus on what you’re going to do to lose weight and make those things your resolution rather than making the weight loss your goal. They also recommend setting some baby-step goals to help you stay motivated to continue on the right track. These are called process goals. An example might be eating five servings of fruits or vegetables a day or keeping a food journal (via Mayo Clinic). Maybe you could focus on losing eating three solid meals a day for the next week or trying out one new form of physical activity every month.
Resolution to Consider: Challenge Yourself to Eat a Variety of Foods
Do you eat oatmeal every morning or pizza every Thursday night? It’s easy. It’s why some brilliant people choose to wear the same outfit every day. It saves your precious decision-making strengths for “more important” endeavors. If your health is also precious to you, though, you might want to rethink your strategy. For one, once you start to spice up your diet, you’ll garner the benefits of more nutrients overall. For example, certain vitamins (A, D, E, and K) aren’t absorbed without a little bit of fat, so eating a salad with fat-free dressing every day for lunch means that you’re likely to become deficient in those specific nutrients.
In a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, among 59,038 women participating in another study, those women who ate a balanced diet with a high variety of fruits, vegetables, whole-grain bread, cereals, fish, and low-fat dairy products (16-17 different healthy foods in total) had a 42% lower all-cause mortality (with an especially lower risk of heart disease) compared to women who only consumed 0-8 healthy foods.
In a Korean study published in Nutrition Research and Practice, 5,251 participants between the ages of 40-69, none of whom had metabolic syndrome at the start of the study, were followed for six years. Those who ate a wide variety of fish, seafood, vegetables, seaweed, protein foods, fruits, dairy products, and grains enjoyed the benefits of lower abdominal obesity, higher HDL cholesterol, and lower fasting glucose levels. Overall, they had a 24% lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome than those who ate a diet with little variety.
Resolution to Avoid: Take a Bunch of Supplements
It’s not hard to see why so many Americans wash down a handful of dietary supplements with their morning coffee. After all, whether you want a healthier brain, less risk of disease, weight loss, or to be happier, it seems that there’s a supplement for that. A select handful of people do need supplementation. For example, pregnant women should take folic acid. Individuals with early age-related macular degeneration might benefit from a specific blend of nutrients (via National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements).
Yet, there’s a litany of reasons why most of us are better off trying to get our nutrients from food rather than supplements. People sometimes get more of a nutrient in their diet than they know and then end up taking supplements on top of that. For example, many women take a calcium supplement even though they get plenty of calcium in their diet. Cleveland Clinic points out, though, that taking too much calcium can cause problems with the kidneys, including kidney stones and kidney failure, constipation, heart troubles, and even confusion. Other examples of toxicity sometimes seen from overdoses on supplements include liver damage from excess vitamin A or iron.
Side effects are a real risk, and the more medical problems or prescribed medications you take, the higher those risks become. For example, many people would be surprised to learn that St. John’s wort reduces the effectiveness of various medications, including birth control pills and antidepressants. In contrast, vitamins C and E can reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy! You should also always let your doctors know what supplements you take before surgery or other medical procedures. “Natural” and herbal supplements are not guaranteed to be safe, either. After all, many illicit drugs are also all “natural”.
Resolution to Consider: Find a Way to Practice Mindfulness That Works for You
The term “mindfulness” sometimes seems out-of-reach to many of us. However, it’s not as difficult or time-consuming as it might appear. The Mayo Clinic explains that mindfulness is anything that brings you into the present moment and increases your awareness of your surroundings. Some people use breathing methods, meditation, or yoga to achieve this, but it’s easy to work mindfulness into your everyday life.
Taking time every morning to breathe and set your intention for the day counts as a mindfulness practice. You might try asking yourself how you could practice self-care or how you might express and build on your unique qualities today (via Mindful). You could even just choose a few words that describe your goal for the next 24 hours — to act compassionately towards others, to be honest, or to enjoy the simple things. Even taking time to savor your food can be an act of mindfulness.
Other common activities that can be used as harbingers of a peaceful state of mind include physical exercises (not just yoga) such as dancing or swimming. As we talked about earlier, focusing on how you feel vs. how many calories you’re burning is an important step toward exercising with intention. When in line at the bank or in a traffic jam, you can take a moment to think of what you have in common with all of the people surrounding you. Although we may look different and we may behave in different ways on the outside, we all want to be safe and free to be ourselves.
Resolution to Avoid: Force Yourself to Meditate
If you feel like meditation doesn’t work for you at all, it turns out that you’re in good company. A study done at the University College London uncovered the unsavory truth — more than 25% of people who regularly meditate have experienced a “particularly unpleasant” psychological reaction, such as feelings of fear or distorted emotions. More males than females reported these unpleasant experiences, as did those who did not have a religious belief.
According to Bruce Davis, Ph.D., in a piece written for HuffPost, “Meditation is an experience of disassociation for many. They feel isolated, alienated, disengaged from life. Despite all the publicity and popularity of how meditation is solving everyone’s problems, meditators can become depressed from meditation.” He asserts that while mindfulness trains us to tune into our feelings, meditation teaches us not to react to physical discomfort. Even when we are mindful of what’s going on in both our head and body, meditation in the West neglects the heart, according to him. So if you feel like your meditative practice isn’t getting you where you need to be, don’t be afraid to try something new!
Resolution to Consider: Aim to Be Content With Your Life
GoodTherapy defines contentment as “being happy with what you have, who you are, and where you are.” When we ruminate on life, we can easily think of things that would make us happier than we currently are or focus on the next hurdle to overcome. On the other hand, contentment is being grateful for what you have and accepting things as they are in the present moment.
You can still have hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the future — to be content is not to say “good enough.” It means taking time to appreciate your accomplishments and achievements to date. Some simple ways to cultivate contentment in your own life, according to Happify, include maintaining a gratitude practice, embracing minimalism, striving to be of service to others, being there for others, and again, practicing mindfulness.
Resolution to Avoid: Pressure Yourself to be Happy
Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David explains in her book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life, and to The Washington Post that we give our thoughts more credit than they deserve — we internalize the message that our thoughts determine our health, well-being, and even our reality. She declares that our collective obsession with happiness and positive thinking collectively decreases our resilience.
These uncomfortable feelings that we push through or shove aside tend to come roaring back. It’s like when you go on a diet, and all you can think about is donuts. When we tell ourselves we will not think negative thoughts, our brain becomes obsessed with those very thoughts that we have decided to ignore. By ignoring the things that cause us pain or unhappiness, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to learn about what we value and care about.
According to David, there is plenty of proof that those who resolve to be happy become less happy; instead, it makes sense to explore our feelings, label them without judging them or acting to change them, and then move forward despite them.