Making and Keeping Healthy Resolutions
It's that time of year again -- the time when many of us traditionally voice our commitment to change, personal growth and self-actualization. It’s the time when we examine where we’ve been and where we are going. It’s the time to make our New Year's resolutions. Like a few million other Americans, on January 1st I think of the new ways that will lead to a better me.
For some of us, the resolutions we make are about breaking behavior patterns that we recognize (or have been told over and over) as being questionable, like promising to stop and ask for directions when we are lost, avoiding tailgating the guy who cut us off, or not stealing the Halloween candy from our children while telling them how bad it is for them.
However, since 60 percent of Americans die from illnesses connected to overeating, lack of exercise and smoking, it's a no-brainer for most of us to focus on health - related resolutions. To this extent, most of us are going to make resolutions that entail dietary changes, exercise or modifications that affect behavior patterns like alcohol intake, smoking, drug use, caffeine and general attitude towards life.
How well do we keep our resolutions? Last year I wrote a column on thalassotherapy -- the health benefits of spending time at the ocean. I resolved to go to the ocean at least once a week. I did OK for a couple of months, then buckled to the time pressures and responsibilities of my every day existence. My good intentions went to the happy hunting ground of rationalizations and procrastination. Since I had made my resolution public in this column, many of my readers would make me squirm by asking me how well I was doing in keeping it.
Interestingly, the success rate of keeping resolutions has been studied quite a bit. This makes me wonder what other productive things the researchers could be doing with their time, like finding cures for AIDS or cancer.
One study, conducted at the University of Washington, indicated that 63 percent of resolvers kept their number one New Year's resolution for at least two months.
The UW study, conducted by Elizabeth Miller, and Alan Marlatt, sought to understand the factors that best predict success in keeping this New Year's resolutions. The researchers focused on health-related resolutions, which are the most common type made.
The primary finding was that the key to making a successful resolution are a person's confidence that he or she can make the behavior change and the commitment to making that change. In addition, the study indicated that resolutions are a process, not a one-time effort. Even if people are successful, they need to sustain and continue to nourish their new behavior pattern over the years.
Marlatt, who has studied the subject of New Year’s resolutions for more than twenty years, suggests starting off with a strong commitment to change, anticipating coping strategies to deal with problems that will inevitably arise (like falling off the wagon), and keeping track of progress in a tangible way.
Marlatt and Williams also suggested that one important key to success is to go public with your resolutions. If your spouse, friends or kids know of your resolve to change/quit/begin anew, the fear of being hectored will help you stay on course.
Not to be outdone by Washington, the Texas Medical Association offered additional advice on New Year’s resolutions.
They agreed with the Washington study that the most important point to consider when making New Year's resolutions is to decide if you truly are willing to make the effort to kick a bad habit or start a healthy one. They added that making a decision to change just because it's New Year's Day isn't enough to keep you motivated for long. Lasting change means being prepared to make sacrifices, and if you're resistant to making the necessary sacrifices, ask yourself why.
The Texans suggested that making a list of the pros and cons of a change is helpful. Take smoking, for example. A "pro" might be the relief from tension smoking brings you. A definite "con," however, is the increased risk of cancer and heart disease. Seeing the consequences of a bad habit in black and white may make change more desirable.
The next step, say the Texas physicians, is to develop a plan of action and make that plan a priority. If you wish to start an exercise program, plan what kind of exercise you will do and how often. Making the plan a part of your weekly schedule is crucial to success. Beware of setting your goals too high, such as expecting to exercise every day for two hours. One slip can undermine your confidence enough to make you scrap the whole program.
What the Texas and Washington groups both fail to mention is the motivational power of rewards. For me, keeping my 2003 resolution by going to the beach once a week means driving through Waimea and stopping at the Little Juice Shack for a shot of yummy wheatgrass juice. Great pleasure from such a little thing.
Finally, one of the most important secrets to keeping New Year's resolutions is to fully understand that change is a process, not an event. Most changes occur in a series of small steps, not major leaps. Once the positive changes become a part of your every day life, it becomes more difficult to return to old patterns.