15 Top Health Mistakes We All Make in January
Many of us make New Year's resolutions to improve our health, but it can be hard to stick with them. Here's how to avoid a February let down.
New Year’s resolutions for your health
It’s that time of year again when people tend to reassess their lives and habits and decide to make a change. Most often, these New Year’s resolutions are about health and wellness: In a 2015 Nielsen survey, staying fit and healthy came in at number one on the list of popular resolutions, with losing weight at number two. In 2017 research by YouGov, a UK-based marketing research firm, “eating healthier” made up over a third of resolutions, with “exercising more” another third. Not surprisingly, it isn’t making the resolutions that is so difficult—it’s keeping them. But in case you think resolutions aren’t worth it, some research shows they’re not totally unachievable: A 2018 YouGov survey found that of the people who made resolutions, the majority mostly or completely kept them.
So what can you do to make sure your health resolutions fall into the success category? We asked experts in health and behavior what pitfalls you should avoid, and how to set New Year’s resolutions that will make next year your happiest yet. First, instead of resolutions, think of them as goals. “Considerable research shows that goal-setting is an important component to behavior change,” says William T. Riley, PhD, director of the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, and NIH associate director of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. Here’s how to do that without making these common New Year’s health mistakes.
Mistake: You’re not specific enough in your health goal
To achieve a goal, Kathryn M. Ross, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida, says to use the acronym SMART. This stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-limited. These are the kind of New Year’s resolutions health experts wish you’d really make. Beginning with “specific”: “We encourage people to set specific goals so that they have an exact plan of what they’d like to do,” Dr. Ross says. For example, Dr. Riley says, “it’s better to set a goal of ‘eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables and walk for at least 20 minutes each day’ than ‘lose weight.'” Or, you could even be more specific: “Someone may decide to have an apple as a snack in the afternoon versus ‘eat more fruit,'” Dr. Ross says.
Mistake: Your health goal can’t be measured easily
The “m” in SMART means you need a way to measure your goal. This makes sense because if you can’t keep track of health goals that are too vague or non-specific, you won’t be able to tell whether your plan is working. “We encourage that people pick goals that are measurable—that is, you should know if you’ve met it or not,” Dr. Ross says. “The fruit example may be extended to ‘have an apple as a snack in the afternoon four days this week.’ Now, you can easily track whether you’ve met the goal or not.” After you measure your goal, “if you met it—great! If not, you can problem-solve new approaches,” she says.
Mistake: Your health goal is too ambitious
Another one of the best ways to make your New Year’s resolutions stick: Don’t set yourself up for failure with goals that aren’t realistic. “Goals should also be ‘achievable’—that is, they should be something that you can actually do,” Dr. Ross says. This is the “a” in SMART. “Adding in a 10-minute walk after work is likely a lot more attainable than deciding to add in an hour-long run, especially if you’ve never run before,” she says. If your goals are too lofty, you’ll be less likely to stick with them, and more likely to give up. “Setting small, short-term goals is important for keeping up motivation,” Dr. Ross says. “Once you reach these achievable goals, you can always move on to bigger targets.”
Also, although it can be tempting to try to make sweeping alterations to everything in your life, it’s better to keep it simple. “I think one of the biggest challenges that people run into is being overwhelmed when trying to make too many changes all at once,” Dr. Ross says.
Mistake: You didn’t break up your ambitious goal
That’s not to say you absolutely can’t have a big dream—you just have to break it down into achievable, smaller pieces. “Even if the goal will take time to achieve, like ‘run a 5K‘ and you currently don’t run at all, you want to set mini-goals such as, ‘walk for 20 minutes each day with one minute running slow instead of walking,’ and then keep setting mini-goals in a stepwise fashion until you meet your long-term goal,” Dr. Riley says. You can either set smaller goals, build on them and then set new ones, or break down a big goal into smaller pieces, he says: “Goals should be achievable in the short-term.”
Mistake: You’re focusing on the wrong things
Make sure that the actions you’re taking will really help you achieve your health resolutions in the long run—this is the “r” in SMART. “Goals should be relevant and actually help you reach your longer-term goal,” Dr. Ross says. “For example, drinking more water might not help you meet your activity goal, but planning a noon-time gym visit might.”
Relevance might also be interpreted as how much your health goal matters to you in your life: If you’re not really invested in your goal, you’re not going to put in the effort required to get there. “People are highly motivated to achieve lofty resolutions on New Year’s day, but their motivation quickly wanes,” Dr. Riley says. “Those who regularly go to a gym will tell you that their gym is packed with people in January but returns to normal by February.”
Mistake: Your health goal is too far in the future
Maintaining a sense of progress is another reason to make sure your ambitious resolution isn’t just one big looming goal to be achieved sometime in the future. “Goals should be time-limited,” Dr. Ross says. That’s the “t” in SMART: Although it may seem counter-intuitive, keeping your goals short-term actually works better in the long-term. “We typically encourage people to set goals on a weekly basis, at max—after that, we find that it can be harder to stay motivated,” Dr. Ross says. “So, setting four smaller goals, one for each week, is likely going to be more helpful than setting one larger goal that you’ll assess in a month.”
Mistake: Your health goal is too short-sighted
While you do want to set short-term goals, you also want to make sure your health resolution is a lifestyle change that you can maintain for the long haul. “Goals need to be short-term, but the perspective needs to be that the change is long-term,” Dr. Riley says. “I once had a patient tell me they had started the grapefruit diet, to which I asked, ‘So you plan on eating only grapefruits the rest of your life?’ The short-term goals you set and the strategies to achieve those goals need to be activities that you can see yourself doing for the rest of your life.”
Mistake: Your health resolution is a fad
Definitely avoid diets or exercise plans that promise quick results with little effort—or that are way too limiting. You don’t want to attempt the New Year’s resolutions that are impossible to stick to. “Many people are drawn toward restrictive or extreme diets and fitness approaches that can set you up for failure—a common example is someone deciding to give up an entire food group or category of foods,” Dr. Ross says. “They might be able to keep that up for a few days or weeks, but when they inevitably have a small ‘slip,’ it often leads to feelings of failure that can make a person want to give up completely. Rather than making drastic short-term changes in order to lose weight or get in shape, it’s important to build new lifestyle habits—new ways of eating and being active that you can maintain long-term.”
Mistake: You give up too easily on your health resolution
Even if you’re making weight-loss resolutions you can actually keep, remember that setbacks are often a part of success. “I think it is important to view everything as a process—there is no such thing as complete ‘success’ or ‘failure,'” Dr. Ross says. “We make hundreds of choices each day that move us closer towards or further away from our goals—just because one choice may take you off track does not mean that you’ve blown it and are done for the day or week. You can always get back on track right away.”
Dr. Riley also says to expect to slip up from time to time. “The research on smoking cessation, for instance, has shown that it is helpful when quitting smoking to accept an occasional lapse, step back and understand what led to that lapse, make a plan to prevent future lapses under those circumstances, and reset the goal to remain smoke-free,” he says.
Mistake: You think slip-ups reflect badly on you as a person
Don’t tie your self-worth into your health resolution: Although you may feel like your goal is important, the ability to reach that goal doesn’t reflect on your internal value. “You aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on what you’ve eaten or how active you’ve been,” Dr. Ross says. “None of these habits change your value as a person.” Furthermore, avoiding the shame spiral when you make a mistake along the way to your health goal might actually lead to a greater chance of success. For example if you’re trying to quit smoking, “beating yourself up when you slip up just generates more negative emotions, which often serve as triggers to smoke another cigarette,” Dr. Riley says.
Mistake: You don’t view your health goal positively
Another reason extreme diets or fitness plans don’t work? You’re going to dread them. “At our recent NIH Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Festival,” says Dr. Riley, “one of our presenters, Dr. Alia Crum of Stanford, described her research on how mindset affects behavior change and physiological change. Viewing the activities to achieve your goals as enjoyable, fun, rewarding, etc., is more likely to produce behavior change than viewing these activities as difficult, challenging, or depriving; and also more likely to produce some of the underlying physiological changes you are trying to achieve by changing your behavior.” In other words, being happy about working toward your New Year’s resolution can make it more likely you’ll get there.
Mistake: You don’t reward yourself
Research published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that immediate rewards, but not delayed rewards, led to more persistence at New Year’s resolutions and other long-term goals. “You want to take time after you’ve achieved each goal to reward yourself,” Dr. Riley says. “Even a small reward like treating yourself to a movie will motivate you to achieve the current goal and the next goal.” Gaining a reward doesn’t mean a “cheat” with old unhealthy habits—remember, you’re trying to change your mindset to think about your current lifestyle in a positive way. But going on a fun outing, getting a massage, or buying something for yourself after attaining a short-term goal can help you feel good and stay on track.
Mistake: You’re not tracking your progress
You’ve set a measurable goal, but you also actually have to remember to track it. “Our research has shown that some of the most important habits for meeting your goals include regular self-monitoring—that is, tracking the habit that you are trying to change, like keeping records of everything that you eat and drink if you are trying to change your eating habits and lose weight,” Dr. Ross says. Monitoring progress is helpful, but in order for it not be a burden, Dr. Riley advises finding a level of self-monitoring that works for you. “Some find it helpful to record each food they eat as they eat it, while others find it more helpful to do a simple count of fruits and vegetables eaten each day,” he says.
Also, “people are using fitness trackers more, but their effectiveness for increasing physical activity is limited if you don’t have specific, short-term achievable goals and a clear plan for how you will increase your physical activity,” Dr. Riley says. You can also try these high-tech gadgets that will help you keep your New Year’s resolutions.
Mistake: You’re not changing your environment
Part of changing your lifestyle to a healthier one may mean letting go of old comforts, activities—or even people—who enabled your unhealthy habits. “Make whatever changes that you can in your environment to support your new habits,” Dr. Ross says. “This includes both changing the ‘cues’ in your environment—for example, removing a candy bowl from your desk if it leads to you snacking on candy in the afternoon, and having fresh fruits and vegetables prepared and easy to access if you want to eat more fruits and vegetables,” Dr. Ross says. But you also need to change “social cues,” she says. So instead of having binge drinking nights out with friends, if you’re trying to cut back on alcohol you may need to arrange to see them for lunch instead.
Mistake: You don’t have a squad
Part of your new social cues for your new healthy lifestyle is having a support system in place to cheer you on. “Make a public commitment regarding your goals, because you’re more likely to achieve those goals if others know you made them and can support you achieving the goal,” Dr. Riley says. In addition, “having an exercise buddy can provide social support and a reminder of your commitment to be active—it’s a lot harder to skip a planned morning workout if you know someone is waiting on you,” Dr. Ross says.
But if you do set goals with others, be aware of some of the potential drawbacks of that, too. “If you both progress at similar rates and feel supported by the other, especially when you backslide, then working together toward a common goal can be very helpful. But you need to have a plan of what you’ll do if your workout buddy drops out or progresses much faster than you do,” Dr. Riley says. You could also consider enlisting a professional, like a certified fitness trainer or registered dietitian, to be on your side. “Seeking more professional assistance may be useful for some people who have difficulty making these changes on their own,” Dr. Riley says. “It might cost a little now, but if it results in a longer and healthier life, it may be a good investment.” (Here are some New Year’s resolutions that may help you live longer.)
- Nielsen: "This Year's Top New Year's Resolution? Fitness!!"
- YouGov: "One in five Americans has stuck to their 2018 New Year's Resolution"
- William T. Riley, PhD, director of the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, NIH Associate Director of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research
- Kathryn M. Ross, PhD, MPH, assistant professor in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology, University of Florida
- NIH: Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research: OBSSR Monthly Connector Newsletter
- Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: "Immediate Rewards Predict Adherence to Long-Term Goals"