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How science can help you actually keep your New Year’s resolutions

Flickr Creative Commons/Britt-nee
Flickr user Brit-knee says: "should say "you're amazing"... haven't been 150lbs and under since high school... kind of in awe lol."

This is the year I’m going to lose weight. And eat better! And go to the gym three times a week!

Those are the most popular kind of New Year’s resolutions in the country: last year, nearly 70% of us vowed to be fit and healthy or lose weight. 

And every January, the gyms fill up, and the health and fitness industries make a killing. So let's look at the science behind why so many of us fail at those resolutions, and why some of us actually do succeed (and not just the 16% of people who apparently vowed not to make a resolution, which, ok, congrats, party poopers.) 

The magical unicorns who vow to get fit and then DO IT

Grace Koepele did what we've all done:  she made a resolution to exercise more. Except now, two years later, "that's actually turned into, like, I've been doing it since then," she says, smiling after finishing a workout here at the YMCA .

So why does Koepele think she was able to actually make that resolution work, when so many of us fall short? 

“Um well to be completely honest, around that time, I was dealing with severe depression," she says. "And I think it just severely impacted my symptoms. And I felt so much better that I just kept up with it.” She says she also took a class recently that looked at the impact of exercise on depression, and that made her even more committed. 

Then there’s Mike Loviska, who says he resolved to get fit after his father passed away at age 69. 

“And I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me," he says. "I had not really exercised before that. And I’ve been running ever since.” 

Ok, so we get that your motivation is a big factor. But one thing that's different about people like Loviska and Koepele, is their motivation isn't strictly about weight: it's not "I want to lose 20 pounds" or "My doctor says I have pre-diabetes and need to drop the weight." 

It's tied a lot more closely to immediate gratification: Koepele's symptoms eased. Loviska could feel like he was making a real change, every time he went for a run. 

And our brains are just way more wired to want that immediate gratification, more than say, avoiding heart disease in 20 years. 

"You can have the main goal of, 'I want to lose 20 lbs,' but pretty regularly  you need an actionable item that’s working to that," says Sarah Ball, a health coach and a registered dietician for the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. "Like, 'I’m going to cut down on refined sugars this week. I’m going to  do that yoga class I’ve been wanting to do for so long.'"

The 3 ways New Year's resolutions are self-sabotaging 

Fundamentally, there are three things about the way we make our New Year's resolutions, that set us up for failure, says Michelle Segar. She studies motivation and behavioral sustainability at the University of Michigan, and the author of "No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring you a Lifetime of Fitness."

Number one: “We make our resolutions in a bubble of overindulgence and self-disgust,” Segar says. 

You know that pattern we get into during the holidays? We indulge at office parties and family dinners for weeks, then it's over and our pants feel tight and our faces are bloated. We're angry at ourselves.

And we swear, never again! This is the year we're going to change. 

That’s problem number two. Sager calls it the “gambling mentality,” the voice in your head that says THIS TIME is different:

“What do people do when they gamble? They lose a lot, but they keep going back to the table, because there’s something fun," shey says. "And maybe, maybe this time. Not maybe: yes, this is the time!”

Finally,  there's the plain old bandwagon effect. It’s a new year! Look at all those specials on gym memberships and weight loss programs! Everybody else is doing it!

But obviously, if moments of self-loathing, the thrill of gambling, and the bandwagon effect were enough to get us to change, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Getting out of the self-defeating cycle 

So what does the research say we should do instead? First off, don't join a gym. 

I mean, by all means, go if you actually LOVE the gym…But if you hate spin class or logging marathon miles on the elliptical, you’re probably not going to stick with it for more than six weeks.

“So people need to toss out rules of what they think they should be doing," Segar says. "You know, eat five fruits and vegetables a day. Run, be active five days a week. Rules get in our way.”

Segar says instead, we should just give ourselves permission to do the stuff we actually enjoy, like going for walks, or salsa dancing, or yoga – whatever. 

We have to stop thinking that stuff doesn’t “count” if we're not sweating bullets on a treadmill somewhere. 

Ultimately, Segar says you can be your own research scientist.

“The throwing down the gauntlet of, 'I’m going to go the gym 5 days a week, or I’m going to join this weight loss program and get all my meals shipped,' if that hasn’t worked before, you’ve got a lot of evidence that it’s not going to work.”  

But advertisers know it’s really hard to not give into that gambling, this-time-is-different mentality.

Still: anything where you have to drastically change your life -- or where you have to follow a strict set of rules from some diet authority – science says you're eventually going to rebel against that.

So if you’re going to make a resolution this year about getting healthy, remember: if it failed you in the past, it’s probably not going to work this time. And that’s ok.  Instead, what if we just do a little bit more of the active things we actually enjoy?

And if that’s not a treadmill, that’s fine.

(Support trusted journalism like this in Michigan. Give what you can here.)

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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