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It’s that time of the year again, when people make New Year’s resolutions, when a change in calendar year becomes a convenient excuse to vow to improve ourselves.

Two of the most common pledges are to lose weight and exercise more. Research tells us that, within a few months, most people will have abandoned their resolutions. But science can also tell us how to succeed.

The single biggest resolution-setting mistake that people make is biting off more than they can chew. Goals – especially weight-loss goals – have to be realistic or you are simply setting yourself up for failure. If you’ve slowly packed on an extra 50 pounds over the years, it is foolish to think that you will shed it all by Canada Day.

It’s better to set a modest goal, say five pounds by Valentine’s Day, and be stoked when you succeed. Then you can up the ante and set another target. That’s a reminder, too, that resolutions won’t work if they are one-offs.

Losing weight is (relatively) easy. It’s maintaining weight loss that is the challenge. When you cut through all the hype and mumbo-jumbo of diet books, one truism remains: To lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you consume.

You can do that by under-eating, overexercising and arbitrarily restricting whole categories of food such as carbs or tomatoes (which is what most diets preach) but ritual self-abuse is not healthy, nor tolerable over time.

Diets fail because they are a temporary fix. Losing weight and keeping it off requires lifestyle changes – a permanent fix – and that is best done slowly but surely over time.

Change is hard.

Psychologists who study the science of motivation tell us that, to make significant change, you need to be convinced it will make your life better. So, before setting goals, you need to ask yourself some basic questions: Why exactly do I want to lose weight? Why do I want to be fit?

Perhaps it’s because you want to be able to play with the grandchildren, or because you want to fit into your wedding dress on your 20th anniversary. It is aiming for those concrete milestones that will make you motivated to stick to your resolutions, not some mythical “ideal weight.”

Once you are committed, then there are a lot of practical tips that help with the follow-through.

Probably the most important is having a plan, the more specific the better. “Exercising more” is not a goal, it’s a platitude.

You need to, for example, commit to running four times a week, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. Better still, plan to run a race in early May and train specifically for that goal. Find a training partner or group because that can motivate you and make you accountable to others.

Research shows that making your plans/commitments public also makes you more likely to follow through, i.e. invite others to sign up for that May race and run with you.

Humans are creatures of habit and there are triggers in our lives, good and bad.

When you sit down in front of the TV, perhaps the first thing you do is reach for a bag of chips. To break that bad habit, you can make sure there are no chips in the house or even sit in a different spot. Change your environment to remove distractions and temptations.

But triggers can also be a good thing. For example, you can make it a habit to, every night when you get home from work, rain or shine, jump on an exercise bike (the one currently serving as a clothes rack) for 20 minutes.

Another common trick for committed exercisers is to lay out their clothes the night before, making it that much easier to get to the gym or go out for a walk.

Writing it down is also really helpful for sticking to your resolutions – whether you’re aiming to lose weight or exercise more. Monitor what you do and learn from it. Measurable, achievable goals are the key.

Finally, don’t be too tough on yourself. Everyone has setbacks, but if you fall off the diet/exercise wagon, make it easy for yourself to get back on. Aspiring to do better is good, but you won’t find self-worth on a scale or in a race.

Ultimately, the best exercise program is the one you will stick to, and the best diet is one that is not just tolerable, but enjoyable.

And, regardless of your resolutions, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

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