How Did that New Years Resolution Go?
In physiotherapy, many patients come in with pain or injuries that have occurred secondary to a sedentary lifestyle. ‘Why did this happen?
’ I often get asked. Well, if you spend most of your day sitting or yes, even standing at a desk, and don’t take time to move your body on a regular basis, things start to get stiff and sore. Not only that, but other health markers, like blood pressure, abdominal fat, and cholesterol take a turn for the worse as well. For many patients, just moving more throughout the day would prevent a lot of future pain and illness. Move more. Its such a simple solution, yet so tough to get people do on a regular basis when they have become accustomed to sitting all day, caught up in their work demands.
As physiotherapist I see more and more problems that occur as a result of lifestyle, and therefore I have become more focused on behaviour change. It’s one thing to resolve a single episode of neck or back pain in the short term, but another to resolve it for the long term through changing our lifestyle. This is because change is extremely difficult for most of us.
Most of use New Years resolutions to try to create change for the better in our lives. Some of us announce them to the world, while others may quietly make personal vow that they keep to themselves. Nonetheless, most of us make them in some form or another. So now that we are one month into the new year, let’s check in. How have you done with your resolution? For most of you, your resolution has already been forgotten and brushed off. It’s well known that most resolutions fail. I commend those of you who have made big resolution with long-term success. The concept of a New Year’s resolution has become somewhat blasé to most of us; another year, another half-hearted attempt to improve upon our flaws, already knowing that we will likely give up on our goals within a few weeks at best. Why do we get stuck in this cycle?
There is one big common factor that I have observed with my patients who want to change to be more active, more fit, and lead healthier lifestyles. It’s not that they don’t want it enough. They really do want to improve themselves, they just never seem to make any progress. They tell me that they have tried everything—new diets, new exercise plans, hiring a trainer or coach, and so on, but they always seem to end up back at square one. With repeated failures, they might even end up getting less fit over time, despite their best efforts to do the opposite.
What’s that common factor? The people who want to change the most, but get nowhere, tend to take an all-or-nothing approach. They go from a completely sedentary lifestyle to trying to high intensity workouts for five days a week. They force themselves into busy gyms where they feel self-conscious and out of place, doing exercises that they don’t even enjoy. Or they vow to cut out all forms of sugar with a zero-tolerance policy for the occasional piece of cake, pizza, chocolate or ice cream. This is an almost guaranteed set-up for failure. The worst part is that these people are often extremely hard on themselves when things don’t work out.
Our culture has shifted so that we want everything now rather than later. We don’t want to wait five years for that big dream to come true; we want it tomorrow. New year, new you, starting now. While it may make us feel good to plan out big, wonderful goals for ourselves, and fantasize about dramatic short-term changes, we neglect to acknowledge that behaviour change, even on a small scale, is extremely difficult. We often aim so high that we set ourselves up for failure. Our brains like comfort and will fight at every chance to get us back into our old, less healthy habits. There are some rare instances where this will work for someone, but most people who take this approach will fail.
What happens when we fail? We look in the mirror and judge ourselves harshly for being a failure. When we are left beating ourselves up over our repeated failures, our confidence and self-efficacy—our belief in our ability to achieve goals—starts to falter. The more this happens, the less capable we feel of making positive changes in our lifestyle, and it becomes easier to hold ourselves to a lower standard. We get stuck. We become complacent with our situation instead of maximizing our chances for health and happiness.
I know behaviour change first hand. As a teenager, you would never look at me and think physiotherapist. At my heaviest, I had about 60 pounds of extra body fat compared to myself today, could barely muster more than a couple push-ups, and a couple minutes of brisk walking left me breathless. I was the last pick for most sports teams. I got picked on for how I looked. Being out of shape, insecure and unhappy with myself was not what I wanted before even finishing high school; I was determined to get fit and healthy. All or nothing. I made a dramatic reduction in my caloric intake; swapping out frozen pizzas and my parents’ Newfoundland (high calorie) cooking for 300 calorie frozen dinners. I woke up early every morning before school and spent 45 minutes on the treadmill, staring at a wall, watching seconds tick by on the monitor as I huffed and puffed away. It was a little mind-numbing, but I practiced with strict discipline and it worked. I didn’t allow myself any slack. I even rationed out chocolate bars to fit my daily calorie limits. I lost about 40 pounds within a few months. I looked pretty lanky, and still couldn’t do many push-ups, but I was no longer getting teased for being the fat kid. I got excited about the progress I had made enough to pursue an undergraduate degree in kinesiology.
However, those all-or-nothing changes were impossible to maintain once university started and life got a little more complicated. There were late nights of studying and paper writing. I suddenly had a ton of friends, which meant nights out at the bar followed by extra large pizzas, with bacon, on our way home. It was hard to pass up social time for the repetitive treadmill jogging. By my second year of university, I was at my heaviest. As a kinesiology student, I certainly didn’t look like the person you would look to for help with healthy living, and I knew it.
I was nonetheless determined to lose the weight again, and this time for good. I needed a new strategy. I did a lot of reading and reflection and learned how to get fit the right way. It wasn’t an overnight shift to intense daily workouts, or a low-carb or ketogenic diet. I mixed up my activities so that it included more things that I enjoyed, like hiking outside, snow shoeing, weightlifting and yoga. This was more appealing to me than walking and jogging mindlessly on a treadmill for 45 minutes. I ditched elevators and would carry my groceries the twenty-minute uphill walk home rather than taking a cab. I taught myself how to cook healthy whole foods, rather than buy low-calorie processed options that left me still hungry. Rather than rationing out treats in my diet, indulging a little but never feeling satisfied, I allowed myself to have that chocolate cake, the whole slice, without guilt from time to time. I realized that the less guilty I felt about indulging in ‘forbidden’ foods, the less I would crave them. I figured out how to lead a healthy, balanced lifestyle in a way that was manageable for the long term, even when everything else in life got busy.
Today at 31, I am the best shape of my life so far. I can lift heavy barbells with good form, I teach yoga, and I can run a 10k with little preparation. I eat a mostly unprocessed, plant-based diet that includes bread and pasta and starchy vegetables. I still allow myself chocolate, pizza, ice cream, and nights out with friends, but because the rest of my lifestyle is so balanced, I can get away with it and stay fit, rather than force myself to swear off junk food and social pints of beer altogether. I’m beyond happy with how far I’ve come over the long term and can’t imagine ever going back. I hope that by 40 I’m more fit than I was even at 30.
Now let’s get to the most important part of this story, because right now this all sounds like the set up for a musical montage in an 80s sports movie, where the protagonist turns things around in three minutes. The reality is that this has taken me over 10 years for me to pull off, and it has all been through slow, gradual shifts.
I’ve learned that the smaller the goal and the slower the change, the more likely you’ll get positive results that last for the long term; it’s very unrealistic for anyone to try change their physique overnight, no matter how bad they want it. Instead, I have focused on making small changes, so that every New Year when I looked in the mirror, I am slightly more fit than the last. Sometimes the difference was miniscule, but it has still compounded over the last ten years. Its not tough to lose 5 pounds if you give yourself a year to do it through tiny, failure-proof changes. While its been a long road and a slow process, I can’t imagine ever living like my 20-year-old self again, and I’m grateful that my past self was okay with baby steps, even though the gratification wasn’t instantaneous. I would now have to make a bigger effort to go back to that lifestyle than to maintain my current one.
The whole concept of a New Year’s resolution is a recipe for failure. The New Year feels like a clean slate we can use to totally reconfigure our lives for the better. During the holidays we get to indulge and rest, and from here our regular routines look a lot simpler. Thinking big from here feels easy, so we set huge goals for ourselves. However, this all-or-nothing approach sets most of us up to end up back at square one; once the holiday ends and we get settled back into real life and all its hectic demands, that big shiny dream usually fizzles out into the background and we return to business as usual by February. Maybe we will pull it off next year, when we have more time again.
The reality is that there is no perfect time to change behaviour. There will always be that stressful job, a house and family to take care of, a friend or family member in need of support, or any of those little unexpected surprises that inevitably pop up along the way.
Our ability to make positive change is always present; its not only there when everything in life is going just right. Let’s forget about those all-or-nothing, big shiny New Year’s goals that set us up for failure. Its better to think small. If you make a goal so easy that you can pull it off even when life gets messy, you will be able to pull it off at any time. Small goals like this are fool-proof and much more realistic for long term change. Here are some simple, practical tips to form long term habits towards a healthier lifestyle that I have learned, and now want to share with you:
1. Aim for tiny, easy to achieve goals that can compound over time.
This is the most important. Pick something that is so easy to pull off that you are confident you can’t fail. Be honest with yourself. If you haven’t been exercising at all, rather than aiming for working out hard at the gym 3-5 days a week and giving up after a month, why not start with a home workout once per week? That is still an extra 52 exercise sessions in one year. After a few weeks or months, you will feel proud of yourself rather than defeated, and it may be easier to edge it towards two workouts per week. It may not seem like much, but even one workout per week is still an extra 52 sessions a year that would have otherwise never happened. If your goal is weight loss, assuming you burn 300 calories of fat per workout and nothing else changes, that’s still five pounds in one year, just by exercising once per week. If you keep your weekly workout challenging enough and continue with that small 300 calorie deficit, five years from now that might be 25 pounds lost, and the habit of working out once per week in your living room will seem so easy it will feel like you haven’t worked for it at all.
2. Set process-oriented goals instead of result-based ones.
Rather than focus on an outcome, first decide what you must do to reach your goal. If you don’t outline specifically how you are going to get to where you want to be, there is going to be a lot of meandering and wasted effort in between the start and finish lines. Rather than say, “I want to put on 5 lbs of muscle by the end of next year,” make your goal to consistently lift weights three times a week. If your goal is to lose 5 pounds, maybe set a goal of walking to and from work on mornings when the weather is nice. Wait until that becomes an automatic habit for you before taking on anything else. Remember, five pounds six months from now is still better than six months of ups and downs and failure.
3. Do not let your goals deprive you of joy
If you feel miserable just thinking about your plan, its going to be tough for you to follow through. For example, getting fit doesn’t require a gym membership or endless hours of mind-numbing treadmill walking. No one wants to give up on social gatherings or ever eating cake again to be fit. If you can’t find joy in your new plans, adjust them accordingly. Maybe that hour at the gym can instead be an hour of playing with your kids. Also surround yourself with people who support you and encourage you along the way, rather than those who point out how ‘miserable’ it must be to exercise on a regular basis.
4. Stay mindful and present.
Our brains are wired to automatically perform most of our daily tasks without much conscious thought. Ever notice how you can drive home from work and often not even think about it, ending up in your driveway without even thinking to turn the ignition? Our brains are plastic, meaning they wire and re-wire based on our repeated thoughts and actions. It is so easy to go through the day on autopilot and not even recognize that we are falling back into old habits.
Behaviour change is the process of slowly re-wiring your brain until the new habit becomes the norm. I have a bad habit of eating way more than necessary right before bed when I’m not even hungry, and often find myself gazing into the fridge before bed before I even realize that I’m doing it.
Mindfulness is an extremely powerful tool for enacting change. Take some time throughout the day to check in with yourself. What are your thoughts in that moment? What are your actions? Are you just moving on auto-pilot? Meditation may be a helpful tool for you to strengthen your ability to stay present and mindful.
5. Show some self-love for where you are now
It’s a little cheesy, but I really believe that to make positive change you must be happy with who you are today. Starting a fitness journey is going to be much more tough if in the beginning you look in the mirror and judge yourself harshly. Negative self-talk is not going to give you the confidence you need to work through the challenges associated with behaviour change. This applies whether you already fit or overweight and out of shape. No matter where you are, or how many times you may have failed in the past, always know that there is nothing innately wrong with you. Forgive, accept, and love yourself for where you are today, but acknowledge that you always have it in you to make things better without upending your life. This leads me to my next point:
6. Fail again and again and be okay with it.
Embrace failure as a necessary and unavoidable part of your journey. When it comes to making change, everyone is going to fail at points along the way, so there is no reason to beat yourself up over it. What’s more important to your success is that no matter how many times you mess up, how many weeks or months you may fall off the wagon for, you get back to your plan. Examine why things didn’t work out, modify things accordingly, and make your goals easier. Failing again and again, providing you respond to failure in a thoughtful and caring way, will get you further than just giving up.
As a physiotherapist, nothing energizes me more or makes me happier than when I discharge a patient who is not only in less pain, but also on the road to a healthier lifestyle. Change requires that we slowly re-wire our brains over weeks, months, and years. Let’s forget about the big, overly ambitious, all-or-nothing resolutions that come every January 1st. Pick something small, simple, and easily achievable. Start tomorrow, not next year, and let it grow into something bigger in the long term.