Maybe you’ve decided to learn French or get a new job. Or how about losing half a stone? The tradition of making New Year resolutions goes back to Roman times, and many of us will have started 2019 by making one: wanting to get healthier, slimmer or fitter.
Sometimes those resolutions stick. Sometimes they don’t. So what can you do to keep yours going? Well, the first thing is to ditch a number of commonly held beliefs. These include: ‘Don’t bother with a New Year resolution because you will give up within a couple of weeks.’
Get rid of calorific items such as doughnuts and replace them with healthy food
Here’s proof that resolutions do stick
There is a widespread belief that resolutions are a waste of time because they inevitably fail. At this time of year, I often hear it said that ‘70 per cent of people give up within two weeks’, or ‘only 12 per cent of people stick to their resolutions for more than six months’.
I’ve tried very hard to find the basis for such claims, but there doesn’t seem to be any real evidence for them.
One of the few studies that have looked into how well people stick to their resolutions, published in the Journal Of Clinical Psychology, was much more positive. In this study, researchers took 159 people who made a resolution to lose weight, quit smoking or exercise more, and 123 people who had similar goals but hadn’t yet made a resolution to change.
Six months later, almost half of the ‘resolvers’ said they had been successful in achieving at least part of their goal, compared with just four per cent of the non-resolvers.
Don’t be scared to set a big goal
Losing weight fast can be both motivating and effective
Another thing we often hear is: ‘If you want to succeed, you have to set yourself small, realistic goals.’ When it comes to exercise, this is probably true. You are not going to be able to go from being a complete slob to running a marathon in a few weeks. But when it comes to weight loss, setting small, realistic goals doesn’t appear to help. In a study carried out by the University of Minnesota, researchers followed 1,800 men and women who had enrolled on a weight-loss programme. The women with the most ambitious targets were those who achieved the greatest weight loss after two years.
That is because those with ‘unrealistic goals’ set out to lose a lot of weight, fast. And as I point out in my new book, The Fast 800, losing weight fast can be both motivating and effective.
Another sensible bit of advice is: ‘Don’t set yourself more than one resolution at a time.’
But when researchers from Stanford University put this particular claim to the test, it turned out to be more myth than fact. They took 200 inactive, overweight volunteers and split them into three groups.
The first group was put on a diet and then got exercise advice a few months later. A second group got exercise, with dietary advice some months later. A third group got both exercise and dietary advice from the start. Researchers then tracked the progress of all three groups for a year.
They found that the group asked to change both their diet and exercise regime from the start were the ones who were most likely to succeed.
Why willpower is overrated
When we fail to live up to our resolutions, we often blame it on lack of willpower. But I think willpower is overrated. It is much easier to resist temptation if temptation is not there, staring you in the face. My top tip for successful dieting is before you begin, remove all junk food from the house and replace it with healthy food.
If your cupboards are stuffed with crisps and biscuits, at some point you are likely to crack, no matter how strong your resolve.
Similarly, if your New Year resolution is to do more exercise, don’t rely on willpower to get you off the sofa and out of the door.
That’s because exercise resolutions often rely on abstract, distant goals. ‘I will get fitter so I live longer’ is no match for a short-term desire such as: ‘That sofa looks comfortable.’
If you are going to change your ways, you are going to need help. So sign up with a personal trainer, persuade a close friend or loved one to join you in a weekly Zumba class, or buy a dog that howls if you don’t take it for a walk, like mine does.
The more you can build exercise and activity into your life so you can’t avoid it, the more likely you are to succeed.
Don’t give up at the first hurdle
When you break a resolution, the temptation is to say to yourself: ‘I’m a weak-willed failure. I will never succeed, so I might as well give up now.’
This is called catastrophic thinking and it is a common reason why resolutions fail.
To demonstrate the effects of catastrophic thinking, a few years ago I took part in an experiment where dieters were divided into two teams and then, separately, taken along to a cake-making lesson. Before they started baking, members of Team A were offered a slice of cake. After they had eaten it, they were told they had just consumed 750 calories.
Changing your diet and starting to exercise is the best way of losing weight
Team B members were offered a slice of the same cake, but they were told that their slice was only 190 calories.
Then both teams spent an afternoon making cakes while being secretly filmed.
Team A members, who felt they had already blown their diet, decided ‘what the hell’ and began eating any spare cakes they could hoover up.
They ended up eating almost 4.4 lb (2kg) of cake between just four of them.
Team B members, who thought they’d had only a modest treat, were much more restrained, and although they ate some extra cake, it was far less.
There will always be difficult and stressful days when things are going badly and you reach for a large tub of ice cream or a family-size bar of chocolate. Try thinking: ‘That was a mistake, but I’m only human.’
Learn to be kind to yourself and appreciate that change is hard. Treat occasional failures as a setback, not an excuse to give up.
- Starting next month, I am doing my first live tour in the UK, talking about intermittent fasting, my career in TV and what I’ve learned about health and weight loss. Find out more at michaelmosley.co.uk.