You spend the final weeks of December indulging in all that the holidays have to offer ― an extra glass of eggnog, delicious frosted cookies and lazy days curled up in front of the TV. You promise yourself that you’re going to start on that health goal very soon. Come Jan. 1, you vow to be in the gym seven days a week, packing salads for lunch and drinking eight glasses of water a day.
But then it doesn’t work. Why? While it can seem motivating to make a New Year’s resolution to revamp your lifestyle, experts note that this isn’t always the most effective approach.
Here are some reasons why looking at January as the time to start a new health regimen can actually sabotage your goals, plus some advice on what to do instead.
The statistics are not in your favor.
It’s a known fact that most New Year’s resolutions, while well-intended, don’t get off the ground ― at least not for long. The failure rate is said to be about 80%. And according to Elise Auxier, a certified professional coach in Tampa, the majority of people that make January goals lose their resolve by mid-February.
“We start out with such enthusiasm, vigor and fortitude, only to quickly realize that our shiny goals are apparently destined to be buried in the sandlot of broken dreams within six weeks,” she said.
Your resolution might not have the right motivation attached to it.
The beginning of a new year comes with cultural and social pressure to get healthier in one way or another, noted Nick Frye, a behavioral counseling manager at health coaching company OPTAVIA. This usually means losing weight, hitting the gym or eating better.
“The problem with this lies in the concept of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation,” he said. “With intrinsic motivation, we are driven to achieve our goals because they reflect our most personal values, our truest aspirations and our most authentic selves. Extrinsic motivation means we base our goals on what other people think we are supposed to achieve.”
The bottom line? If you aren’t embarking on a new health journey because it is meaningful and important to you, then it’s usually just a matter of time before the commitment fades ― no matter what time of year you started.
A January resolution can create an “all-or-nothing” mentality.
“As adults, we have long-established behavioral patterns of health. Some of these patterns started as children, so to think that you will wake up on Jan. 1 and change everything is setting yourself up for failure,” said Stephanie Burstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Boca Raton, Florida.
New Year’s resolutions also have a way of making you feel like you need to go full-force on a goal or you may as well not do it at all.
“Putting all your eggs in the January basket and hoping that ‘this year will be different’ can not only create undue stress but can also create an ultimatum in your mind to stick to it ‘100% or nothing,’ which creates the perfect cop-out for when life inevitably happens,” said Tiffany Caplan, co-founder of the Caplan Institute of Health in Ventura, California.
There will be times when you will inevitably deviate from your health goal ― your work meeting ran late and you missed your yoga class, you were under the weather or traveling and unable to find a healthy lunch spot. If this happens, you might be more tempted to give up on a “resolution” entirely. Instead, focus on a goal day by day.
Your “new year, new you” goal may be too big to achieve.
“Last year, you didn’t work out at all, but this year you are going to work out one hour a day, five days a week. That seems overwhelming just to read, doesn’t it?” said Christine Kenney, a health coach in Nashville.
Kenney added that this is often why people are quick to abandon new healthy habits that are set for January.
“We find ourselves taking on such big new habits that they don’t stick because they are just so far from our normal routine,” she explained, noting that the majority of tasks you do in your day are already habits, so when you apply a new habit, it needs to be small enough to be sustainable.
Kenney recommended starting small, adding that even tiny changes can have a big impact. Try taking a pilates class every Wednesday night or commit to making one healthy meal per day.
“Often, people try to change everything about themselves at once: their diets, their activities, their social life, etc. All of the changes at once [are] hard to maintain; people quit after a few months and then don’t change anything until the following new year,” said Ashley Nash, a personal trainer in Bridgewater, New Jersey.
The January wellness movement is overwhelming.
So many people enjoy the holidays, then pack into the gym like sardines the first day of the new year. But this can add an extra layer of stress to your goal, according to Jeanette DePatie, a certified fitness trainer and instructor in Los Angeles.
“Everybody else is doing the same thing, so the gym is full, the trainers are super busy and you won’t get the personal attention you would get if you start your fitness journey in February or June,” she said.
DePatie added that seeing everyone going full-throttle in the gym in January can also set you up to push yourself too hard.
“I see it every year ― the gym is full in January, and the sports medicine guy’s waiting room is full by Valentine’s Day.”
“It encourages people to jump into fitness at a level that might be too hard or fast for them,” DePatie said. “It’s all part of the new year ‘magical new me’ syndrome. I see it every year ― the gym is full in January, and the sports medicine guy’s waiting room is full by Valentine’s Day.”
Additionally, waiting until January means you are starting your health journey “when toxic messages about how all bodies need to be perfect [are] at a peak,” DePatie said.
“In January, every potion, pill, abdominal exerciser and health voodoo company has their before/after magical thinking advertising going full-tilt,” she said.
The problem, she explained, is much of this advertising makes promises that are simply not real. “You’re probably not going to end up looking like that fitness model or 16-year-old runway star after using that product. And constantly being bombarded with those images not only bashes our self-esteem but also sets us up to fail.”
Delaying your goals can make them even harder to obtain.
Most importantly, by putting off your goal, you are cheating yourself out of time.
“In general, the best time to attempt a health behavior change is right now,” said Keith Humphreys, a psychiatrist at Stanford Health Care. “And if you succeed, when New Year’s comes, you’ll feel proud of the fact that you are already well ahead of everyone else who is just attempting to follow their resolution to change.”
Putting off your health goals until January also creates the idea that your health and well-being is something to put off, said Alysa Boan, a certified personal trainer at FitnessTrainer.com and RealFitnessMaven.
“When we set a start date too far out, or allow too many obstacles to occur before we begin, we often set ourselves up for failure,” Boan said.
In reality, there are ways you can enjoy the holidays yet still generally live a healthy lifestyle. (One big meal, for example, isn’t going to derail you.) Begin now by taking small, daily steps that help your well-being. Try drinking more water, cutting back on alcohol or going for a walk after dinner.
“Instead of waiting for a better day, or period of time, try shifting your mindset toward what you can do today to improve 1% in the area you feel needs attention,” said Mike Clancy, a health and wellness expert and founder of Mike Clancy Training. “This type of action-based behavior is built upon the success of consistency, rather than a sweeping change at a future date.”