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5 Ways to Stick to Your Health and Fitness Goals This Year

01/20/2015 05:20 EST | Updated 03/22/2015 05:59 EDT

It's January and that means one thing: the gym is busier than an Apple store on the day of a new iPhone release, with more elbows being thrown, and a higher risk of emerging with a black eye.

If aliens visited our planet this month and set foot in a fitness space, they'd be under the (mistaken) impression that we're an enormously healthy and fit population. But if they came back in February, the jig would be up, because four weeks is about all it takes for attendance to drop off at the gym, and for weeknight marathons of House of Cards to win out over 60-minutes of circuit training.

If this scenario hits close to home, don't feel bad, you're not alone, and it's not entirely your fault. As a very wise friend pointed out recently, why do we believe that, with the start of a new year, we'll magically be able to commit to a to-do list of items we weren't able to stick to the year before? And why do we insist on going from 0 to 60 with the turn of a calendar page? Do a juice cleanse! Give up alcohol! Work out 5 days a week! Lose 20 lbs! It's unrealistic and it sets us up for failure. Not to mention, at this time of year we're bombarded with messages from the media, reminding us that celebrities everywhere are dropping the body weight equivalent of a small child through some new fad diet or exercise routine.

Screw it. Don't set yourself up to fail with unrealistic expectations and unattainable standards. Instead, how about a more moderate, compassionate approach to health and fitness this year? Here are five ways to help you stick to your goals, without feeling like a total a-hole when you bite into a burger instead of sipping your cayenne and lemon water.

1. Schedule exercise into your day

People often ask what's the best time to exercise? The answer is, it's the time that works for you, the time where you won't make excuses and will show up and do the work. For me, I find the mornings are the best time to hit the gym. It's less crowded, it starts my day off on the right foot, and I'm less inclined to make excuses to not show up (the only other thing I'd be doing at 6am is sleeping).

Not everyone is an early bird though, so if you can't make it out of bed before 8:00 am, maybe mornings aren't for you. But find what is. Maybe it's sneaking in a workout at lunch, or hitting a class near the office after work. Whatever it is, schedule it into your day like any other appointment, and if you're still finding it tough to go, practice the 20-minute rule -- promise yourself you'll go for 20 minutes and then, if you still don't feel like working out, give yourself permission to leave. Usually you'll find that after 20 minutes, you're pumped to keep going. And if not, at least you got in some activity, so cut yourself some slack and give it another shot tomorrow.

2. Reward yourself for mini-milestones (but not with food)

You know the analogy about the carrot and the stick? Well giving yourself carrots (aka rewards) for reaching mini-milestones in your goals is a great way to stay motivated. I love rewarding myself with new workout wear. Some other great rewards include pampering like massages, facials, and blow-outs, or an afternoon where you schedule nothing but free time with friends.

3. Do it for the right reasons

We've all made resolutions to eat healthy and get fit, but it's usually because we want to look good in a bikini on our upcoming beach vacation, or because our high-school reunion is coming up, or we're feeling self-conscious about a little extra jiggle from holiday overindulgences. But did you know exercise and healthy eating are good for way more than just tight abs? Lowered incidence of depression, decreased stress, a stronger heart and healthier bones, better sex and better sleep are all results of being fit. Set goals for the right reasons and it will be easier to stick to them.

4. Stop reading women's magazines. Or at the very least, be conscious of what they're doing to you

I used to be a magazine addict. Celebrity gossip, fashion, fitness; I read them all (and spent an enormous amount of money to boot -- $6.99 per pub adds up quickly), but at some point I realized that reading stories about the latest food trend, or which celebrity had lost their baby weight in a record 6 days, and flipping through image after image of unrealistic, Photoshopped beauty was making me feel miserable and inadequate. My pores were suddenly too big. My hair seemed flat. And how was I making it through the day without doing something about those under-eye circles? It was an endless cycle of feeling less-than, and I had a growing list of products and diets that I had to buy and use and do in order to be perfect.

But guess what? I'm not perfect and I don't want to be. Perfect is boring. Perfect is fantasy. Perfect is bullshit. And the less I read the magazines, the less imperfect I felt (funny how that works). Do I still pick up the occasional issue of Vogue? Absolutely. But I try and remember that what I'm seeing are images that took an army of lighting technicians, and hair and make-up artists, and photographers, and editors, and post-production technology masters to orchestrate. And who's got time for that?

5. Eat clean and healthy, not trendy

First it was low-fat, then it was low-carb, now gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, grass-fed, organic, whatever. There will always be a new food trend on the radar, and if something works for you, then, by all means, incorporate it into your life, but don't be confused or confounded by what to eat. Michael Pollan nailed it when he broke it down to three simple rules -- Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. He went into a little more detail in his book Food Rules, but really it's pretty simple. Eat clean, healthy, whole ingredients. Don't eat processed food. Stay away from refined sugar. Food isn't meant to be complicated, it's meant to be delicious and nutritious. The 80/20 rule is also a good one to keep in mind -- if you're eating healthy 80 per cent of the time, then don't kick yourself for the 20 per cent where you indulge.

These tips aren't rocket science, but they're a good start to steering away from an all-or-nothing approach to health and fitness, and helping you hit your stride in 2015. Slow and steady. 80/20. That's how we win the race.

A modified version of this piece originally appeared on CuriousCitizen.com

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