There's never a bad time to start getting fit — well, except maybe for New Year's Day, which just happens to be the most popular date for launching new exercise regimens.
Why Resolutions Fail
"In many ways, I think Jan. 1 is the worst possible time to start exercising," says sports psychologist Jack Raglin, a professor at Indiana University's School of Public Health. Our intentions are good, but too often a resolution to get in shape is based on our guilt that we have not exercised as much as we know we should have.
"Those guilty feelings don't help individuals change bad past behavior," Raglin says. "In fact, research shows that guilt often sabotages good intentions. Adults get linked into the negative emotions behind the behavior — I'm such a slouch, and Kathy has kids and runs marathons — rather than focusing on the behavior itself."
Beyond the psychological issues, Raglin says, there's a practical reason why January fitness campaigns fail — the weather. In many parts of the country, "this time of year is awful in terms of exercise options," he says. Establishing and building up one's cardiovascular routine is crucial to improving fitness, but for people who prefer to bike or run outside, frigid temperatures and slick roads make it difficult to exercise consistently.
And for those of us who prefer to do our workouts in the gym, January brings throngs of other "newbies" crowding our favorite machines. "There's an inconvenience factor in that there are all these extra bodies around when you're trying to get your workout in," Raglin says.
Finally, too many people set fitness goals that are too vague. They look at the scale on Jan. 1, after a week of holiday parties, and immediately resolve that this will be the year. But in the heat of the moment, they don't set realistic targets or formulate any particular plan to achieve them. "The people who are most successful at reaching their goals are the ones who've put a lot of thought into what it is they want to accomplish and how they're going to get there," Raglin says.
5 Ways You Can Make It Work
Despite these potential pitfalls, as many as 45 percent of American adults make a New Year's resolution — and, for 40 percent of them, getting fit is the No.1 pledge, according to a University of Scranton study. The study also found that fewer than half of people who make resolutions stick to them longer than six months; more disturbingly, only 14 percent of people over 50 achieve their resolutions. Some do reach their goals, though — about 19 percent claim to have successfully stuck to a resolution for at least two years.
If you're committed to making fitness this year's resolution, here's some expert advice to set yourself up for success:
1. Define your goals. Before you buy new running shoes or sign up for a gym membership, ask yourself what "getting fit" really means to you, says dietitian and exercise physiologist Felicia Stoler, the author of Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great. "Do you want to drop a clothing size, walk or run a 5K, cut your disease risk, have more energy or reduce back pain? These are much more specific goals than 'get fit,'" she says. "Knowing exactly what you'd like to accomplish will make it easier to come up with a realistic plan and stick to it."
2. Make a plan. Studies show that most of us fail to reach our fitness resolutions on the first try. This time around, Raglin advises, start by thinking about what went wrong before — maybe you got bored with your gym routine or maybe you pushed yourself too hard and got injured. Take steps to avoid a repeat, in part by focusing on what worked for you in the past. For example, if you enjoy exercising with others, but haven't loved trainer-led classes at your gym, consider joining a local walking or running group instead. Think about how much support you'll seek from family and friends as well. Again, consider your past attempts — did it help you to have others know that you were trying to get fit? Or did the pressure of their questions start to frustrate you?
3. Be realistic about your capabilities. Our own high expectations can be the biggest obstacle to success, Raglin says. "This is especially true of men, who often want to explore their youth again and return to the exercises that came easily 30 years ago," he says. "You just have to give up on that. You can have remarkable improvements, but you've got to be careful. It takes a lot longer to get over an injury when you're older. Even small injuries can lead people to quit." If you haven't run or worked out for a while, start small, with short-distance jogs or with low resistance on gym machines. As you build your stamina and see what you can handle, you can gradually increase the intensity.
4. Track your progress. Start a journal to help keep you focused. "Writing things down holds you accountable and can be a great motivator," Stoler says. "You'll be able to look back and see how you handled obstacles and how far you've come." Don't worry if you're not the "Dear Diary" type. Your daily entries can be brief, or you can just log results in a daily planner or on one of many fitness-tracking smartphone apps.
5. Aim low, give it time, collect victories. Research shows that it takes about three weeks of sticking with a new activity, like daily stretching, for it to become a habit. But it can take six months for a new routine truly to become second nature. "That's why it's so important to set measurable target points to hit along the way," Stoler says.
When you reach one or two narrowly defined, achievable goals, you can increase your confidence and kick off a string of successes. Start by getting up and walking or stretching for three to five minutes every hour. Do a set of push-ups every morning before work. Or go to the gym for a one-hour workout once every weekend — and build from there.
Or … just keep it simple. What's the most powerful, achievable fitness resolution you can make? Try this: I resolve to be slightly more active all the time. That's it.
"It's not splashy," like losing 40 pounds or running a half-marathon, Raglin says, "but aiming to take tiny activity breaks results in a wholesale change in your behavior and way of thinking. You've planted the seed of an active lifestyle."
If you can do that, you may be surprised by how much more you can accomplish by next Jan. 1.