Come New Year's, a lot of people will be swearing off cigarettes, striving to get their personal finances in order, promising to cut back on drinking and committing to exercise more.
But one resolution will dominate after the seasonal bacchanalia: the desire to lose weight.
Within days or weeks, many, if not most, will have failed. The nicotine patches will be traded for packs of smokes, seasonal sales will tempt you to overspend, a Super Bowl party will undermine the teetotaller, the enthusiasm for the new gym membership will wane, and the can’t-fail diet will.
So how do you beat the odds and keep your resolve?
Health reporters see all manner of diet books, exercise regimens, stop-smoking paraphernalia and sobering testimonials come across their desks. The tracts range from complex long-term scientific studies through to completely wacky theories.
What emerges from this mass of pontification and promises to melt away fat and give you a smaller waist, slimmer hips and a firmer butt is that there is no magic bullet for achieving your goals. But there are a couple of common threads that arise time and time again that should serve as a guide.
At the risk of oversimplifying, achieving your resolutions requires, above all, planning, commitment and realistic expectations. For many, success also depends on teamwork.
A good plan requires measurable, achievable goals and strategies spelled out clearly.
Commitment means making your plan known, setting a timeline, not being deterred by minor setbacks and rewarding yourself for achievement.
“I’m going to lose weight” is not a plan, it’s a platitude.
A plan sounds like this: “My 20-year high school reunion is on June 1. I’m going to lose 20 pounds by then and fit into a size 8 dress again.”
To achieve that goal you need to lose one pound a week and, to get there, a specific program. For example: “I’m going to reduce my intake to 1,600 calories daily, and I’m going to walk briskly one hour a day.”
To help you meet that goal, you can consult a dietitian, sign up with a group such as Weight Watchers or a Running Room clinic. You can tackle the challenge in a solitary fashion, enlist a couple of friends so you can support each other or make some sort of public declaration that will bind you (à la TV’s The Biggest Loser).
The same strategies apply to other common resolutions, but let’s stick to weight loss because so many people struggle with it.
The fads come and go – the paleo diet, the cleanse, the low-carb, the high-carb, the grapefruit diet, ad nauseam. Most are difficult in the short term and useless in the long term.
Sensible dietitians, such as Globe and Mail columnist Leslie Beck, will tell you that if you are serious about achieving and maintaining a good weight, you don’t need a diet (a temporary fix), you need to adopt a healthy lifestyle (a permanent solution).
Weight loss ultimately comes down to a devilishly simple truism: If you consume more calories than you burn, you gain weight; conversely, if you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight.
With our busy, stressful lives, getting that balance right is anything but simple. And maintaining the balance is really difficult in a society in which there is an abundance of food (much of it unhealthy) and physical activity has been systematically engineered out of our lives.
We can, however, learn valuable lessons from those who have triumphed.
The U.S.-based National Weight Control Registry, which has been tracking more than 5,000 people who have lost significant amounts of weight (from 30 to 300 pounds) and kept it off for a long time (from one to 66 years), has studied their strategies. So, if you want to keep your weight-loss resolution, here are the keys to success, according to the successful:
*Eat breakfast: The vast majority of NWCR participants eat breakfast every day. Paradoxically, healthy people eat often, but eat in a structured manner and, above all, control their portions.
*Banish fatty foods from the home: Keeping temptation at bay is a key strategy. NWCR participants stock their kitchens with healthy foods and limit their restaurant visits. The fresher and less processed your food, the better.
*Be consistent: Maintaining a healthy weight means eating well every day, not cheating on weekends, holidays and when convenient.
*Plan activity: The most successful “losers” get at least one hour of structured physical activity daily. It’s not an afterthought, it’s a priority. Find an activity or two you like – walking, running, biking, hiking, skiing, tennis etc. – and embrace it.
*Tune out: One of the key elements in weight-loss programs is turning off the TV (and computer). People who sit in front of a screen are inactive and tend to mindlessly eat. Most NWCR participants report less than two hours of screen time daily outside work.
*Weigh in: Almost all NWCR participants step on the scale weekly, even after years of being a healthy weight. Monitoring provides motivation and prevents the slow accumulation of weight.
*Record it: Maintain a food diary and log physical activity so you learn what works for you and adjust. At the outset, writing it down also gives you a baseline on which you can build and improve.
*Share it: Few people who maintain a healthy weight over time do so in isolation. You need buy-in and support from your partner and family members.
Finally, don’t have a laundry list of grandiose resolutions. Keep the goals simple and attainable. Slow, steady progress is the surest means to achieve a sustainable, healthy lifestyle.