“Whenever we make resolutions, it seems we are tested. Temptations, distractions, and old habits spring up from every side. We need to find the inner strength to persevere and to discover ways to succeed.” (from Inside The Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for the Study and Practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, by Jaganath Carrera)
If you’re struggling already with your New Year’s resolution – less than a month after your intention was set – you are probably not alone. As the above quote illustrates beautifully, keeping our resolutions once they’ve been made challenges almost everyone who happens to be human. We also see this relatively universal experience reflected in the well-known saying “old habits die hard.”
Why is this? What is it about ourselves that makes it so easy to slide back into familiar routines that we perhaps desperately wish to change? The comfort of routine, yes, but why do so many of us persist with comfortable routines that make us routinely uncomfortable in our physical bodies, due to overeating, making poor food choices, neglecting to exercise or get enough sleep – all stressors that can contribute to poor health and suboptimal functioning on all levels of being?
The answer isn’t a simple one, but I firmly believe that we have a deep-seeded natural (genetic/evolutionary) tendency in our bodies that drives us to attempt to maintain our current state of being once our body has learned to operate and function in this state, even if it causes long-term damage and dysfunction and/or shortens our lifespans. In other words, once we’ve established a set point of “normal” functioning for our body in a certain set of circumstances, our body strives to maintain that set point and will actually work against our efforts to change that set point – particularly if we attempt to cause this upheaval on a large scale all of a sudden, which is exactly how many New Year’s resolution fitness/diet programs are undertaken. (Read more about the set point theory here: Weight gain and weight loss difficulties: the Set-Point Theory (part 2)).
This knowledge can seem daunting and discouraging, but actually, I believe it shines a ray of light and hope onto the topic of resolutions, as follows: To make and then successfully keep a fitness resolution, you should work to make small, step-by-step resolutions that involve minor adjustments to your current lifestyle rather than dramatic, drastic overhauls that disrupt your body’s conditioned way of functioning. Make the changes small enough that they will go virtually unnoticed, and make them easy enough so that you can and do succeed. Maybe you eat one more serving of fresh vegetables or fruit a day, switch to whole grain bread for every other meal, cut out sugary soft drinks or do a half-and-half mixture of tonic water and 100% fruit juice in place of sugary soft drinks. Perhaps you add in five minutes of stretching or walking or lifting weights three days a week, and after six weeks, you move this up to six or seven minutes. Maybe you get to bed 10 minutes earlier. All of these are very, very small changes – but they are a start, and if you can maintain them, they are worth so much more than dramatic changes that fall by the wayside after a few short days or weeks.
Once you’ve succeeded for a minimum of six weeks (longer if you want to really ingrain the habit), you can tackle the next change(s) on your list. Or you can try to adopt a small change in several different areas related to your fitness at the same time – but I suggest no more than three at a time. Keep a journal (on your cell phone might be easiest) to keep track of how you do in reaching your goals, and adjust them as needed. The goal is for you to succeed – keep reminding yourself of this – not to set yourself up for failure. Make sure the goals for each six week to three-month period are entirely attainable, and let yourself feel good about reaching them, no matter how small and insignificant they may seem to others (or your unhelpful internal self-judge, who expects you to be swimsuit-ready in three days and also able to run a marathon in the same amount of time).
After several years of making changes this way, you might be surprised to discover real changes in yourself and your fitness/energy levels that you never thought were possible. Another big reason that fitness resolutions and programs fail is because people expect impossibly dramatic results way too quickly. If you can change your mindset to embrace the idea that you’re working toward a permanent lifestyle improvement, not a temporary fix, and that the changes will be gradual, you will be on the way to succeeding via the understanding that the physically visible changes are likely to happen extremely slowly, but that the underlying fitness benefits of improved healthy habits will reap great rewards in terms of your overall health and wellbeing much more quickly…and that physical changes will follow, albeit much more slowly than you might wish them to occur.
Looking back at your New Year’s resolutions now, decide on some realistic, easily accomplished steps you can take during the next six weeks (or longer) to work toward those resolutions. Working to gradually reshape your body’s “fitness set point” will take some time, but if you can stick with it and continually update and expand upon your small, reasonable resolutions, you may be looking back five years from now amazed at how far you’ve come in terms of fitness, rather than discouraged and dismayed by your inability to make a fitness resolution and stick with it.