As Americans, we are locked in a common struggle to constantly better ourselves, our lives and our circumstances. And whether it’s losing weight, living healthier, or saving money, Americans seem to be eternal optimists.
Yet, as we tuck away the Christmas tinsel and settle in to the new year, our willpower begins waning and those resolutions we were so determined to make just last week are becoming more difficult to maintain.
But fear not, experts say, because with a little perseverance, you can get through the challenges and reach the goals you set for yourself this new year.
Those who begin resolutions on Jan. 1 “are 10 times more likely to change” than those who have not set dated goals, said John Norcross, a University of Scranton psychology professor and author who, for more than three decades, has studied what makes people keep — and fail at — resolutions. He also recently penned “Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing your Goals and Resolutions,” a book about ways to succeed at resolutions.
One of the common denominators among those who achieve their resolutions, Mr. Norcross said, is planning.
“They are more prepared. They think through it and once into the new year, they engage in a bunch of skills,” he said. In addition, he said, successful resolvers are more likely to reward themselves for staying on track and to surround themselves with helpful people and environments.
In an oft-cited 2012 study of New Year’s resolutions, Mr. Norcross found that 45 percent of Americans make some kind of resolution, and 47 percent of those resolutions revolve around self-improvement or education-related goals. Another 38 percent resolve to get healthier, while 34 percent have specific money-related resolutions, and 31 percent are trying to improve their relationships in some way.
But in the end, only 8 percent of those people are successful. The data gathered by Mr. Norcross shows that most resolvers stick it out for the first few months — 15 percent drop out after the first week — but numbers tend to stay stable until six months in, when only 16 percent are maintaining their resolution goals. It goes down from there.
The No. 1 New Year’s resolution for Americans is to lose weight. Living healthier in general is also among the top priorities, and Pittsburghers are no exception to those resolutions, one fitness expert said.
“People just want to start out the year healthy and on the right foot,” said Peggy Gregor, group fitness director at Healthtrax Fitness & Wellness Center in Bethel Park.
Membership at the center, which has been in business since 1979, spikes by as much as 25 percent in January, Ms. Gregor said.
“Usage ebbs and flows throughout the year, but January is definitely our busy month,” she said.
Many fitness centers offer special membership deals around the start of the new year, but the real challenge is keeping those clients on track as muscles begin to ache and other priorities beckon, Ms. Gregor said.
“We actually are very good at retaining those numbers, but we do tend to see a drop off in overall participation starting around March,” she said.
To keep clients motivated, Ms. Gregor said, the staff works with them to establish simple, easy-to-define goals, such as working out twice a week and perhaps using a personal trainer. Goals can be expanded as clients begin to feel successful.
“I tend to see people who have never exercised before get discouraged because they want instant gratification,” she said. “They overdo it. They feel like they have to do everything at once. They get burned out.”
Go slowly, Ms. Gregor said, and start off with exercises you enjoy — such as group dance or fitness classes. Variety is a good way to ease boredom, and teaming up with a workout buddy also helps encourage participation.
“When people find their niche, that tends to keep them working out,” Ms. Gregor said.
Perhaps most importantly, Ms. Gregor said, don’t get discouraged by occasional bumps in the road.
“Everybody falls off the wagon, so to speak,” she said. “The longer you stay away, the harder it is to get back on track.”
Mr. Norcross said the response to a slip-up is the biggest factor between those who succeed at resolutions and those who don’t.
“Only when it comes to behavior change are people so grandiose to think that just one attempt will do it,” said Mr. Norcross, who noted that a person wouldn’t be expected to learn calculus or how to play the piano in just one try.
About 71 percent of the successful resolvers studied by Mr. Norcross reported using their first failure as a way to strengthen their resolve, while others used it as an excuse to give up.
“It isn’t the slip itself, it’s the response to the slip,” said Mr. Norcross, who has succeeded personally in exercise resolutions using his methods.
Wexford therapist Mary Van Osdol agreed.
“I think what happens is people tend to have this all-or-nothing mentality,” she said. “When we think about change, we tend to go to radical departures from our regular behavior,” such as working out every day or losing a great deal of weight.
“Resolutions are great, they give us something to aim for, but they need to be small, attainable tasks,” Ms. Van Osdol said.
She also recommends staggering goals, such as losing 5 pounds, then, if successful, raising the goal to 10 pounds, or working out one extra day per week. Even very small, incremental changes to daily routine, such as parking slightly farther away from work or the store, or walking a golf course instead of using a cart, can make a difference, she said.
“These are attainable things that keep people in the momentum,” Ms. Van Osdol said. “Who among us doesn’t want to feel like even in small ways we are moving forward in change?”
Ms. Van Osdol also urges her clients to continually reward themselves in small ways to stay motivated — with “little pockets of joy” — and to surround themselves with a support network.
And, she recommends getting back on that horse if you fall.
“Each day is a new opportunity,” she said. “It’s never too late to have a good day.”
For a list of 40 smart phone applications that can help you track your progress in losing weight, keeping fit, being better organized, looking for a job, quitting smoking, staying on budget and more: www.hongkiat.com/blog/new-year-resolution-ios-apps/.
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1159.
First Published January 9, 2014 12:00 AM