Almost half of all Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and exercise and weight loss is always at the top of the list. That’s no surprise, considering that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and less than half get the recommend amount of exercise needed to stay healthy.
But a future plan to exercise can be used as an excuse to curl up in a ball of blankets and hibernate through the holidays, which could explain why some folks go into the new year with a little added heft. A 2000 study of 195 Americans found that people who were already overweight or obese gained an average of five pounds in the six weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that for all who gained holiday weight, these extra pounds made up more than half of the total weight they gained that year.
That’s why if you already know you need to exercise more ― the government recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity per week with at least two strength training sessions ― there’s no better time than the present to make a resolution about it, experts say.
Dr. Christine Whelan, a thought leader for AARP’s Life Reimagined program and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says it’s a “good psychological trick” to mark a new beginning on a special date ― say, your birthday, the new year or even just Monday morning. However, we’ve got to be careful that we’re not using this future date to justify delaying a life change.
“If you’re saying, ‘I will lose weight in the New Year’ as a way to allow yourself to binge during the holidays, think of what small step you can take right now ― Dec. 1, perhaps ― to get you on the right path for an even more successful new year,” Whelan told HuffPost.
In the spirit of resolution, we spoke to Whelan and two other experts about why you shouldn’t wait until the new year to start working on your goals now, and how to approach fitness so that you’ll greet 2016 with a strong exercise game already in place.
Be mindful about why you want to exercise more
Whelan says it’s easy to identify problems in our lives, but strategizing about ways to solve them is a lot harder. One way to know you’re making the right resolution for yourself is to first figure out why you’re doing it in the first place.
“Thinking about what you want to feel -- and the why behind the change -- makes you more likely to commit to the right resolution to achieve the desired outcome,” Whelan said.
Figuring out why you want to get in shape will also give you direction in how to go about it. Butch Nieves is a former winner of the Mr. America and Mr. USA bodybuilding contests and a personal trainer and leader at the New York Fit Body Boot Camp. He agreed that the first thing people should do when they decide they want to start exercising again is to really contemplate why they want to do it in the first place.
“First, know your ‘why’: Why did you decide to train?” Nieves said. “Your ‘why’ will dictate what your program should be, and what your sense of urgency should be.”
Set some realistic goals and timelines
Research shows that writing down your goals makes you more likely to achieve them. But if those goals are too broad, big or unrealistic, you may find yourself discouraged after failure or burnout, warns Joe Ardito of Fit Crush NYC.
“It may seem counterintuitive to start small, but remember that you want to set yourself up for success, not injury or burnout.”
“Being realistic about your fitness goals can help you both mentally and physically,” Ardito said. "It may seem counterintuitive to start small, but remember that you want to set yourself up for success, not injury or burnout."
To maximize success, Whelan suggested picking just one goal to fulfill from now until the end of the year -- not a whole list of big changes.
"Maybe you want to exercise several times a week, despite the holiday parties,” she said. "Maybe you want to focus on your relationships by putting devices away each evening."
Make a workout plan
Ardito says there are four building blocks of fitness: flexibility, strength training, cardiovascular training and nutrition. The more you plan to tackle each of these pillars before you hit the gym, the less likely you are to waste time and get distracted, he says.
If you want to get in the gym and get out fast, a combo of circuit training and high-intensity interval training will accomplish the most in the shortest amount of time, Nieves says. Alternating periods of vigorous exertion and active recovery have been shown to increase the number of calories burned, both during the workout and afterward.
But, if going to the gym isn’t an option right now, brainstorm other physical activity goals you can set, Ardito suggests.
“Bike to work, take the stairs rather than the elevator and walk a few times around the block on your lunch break,” he suggests.
Get some friends involved
Whelan adds that it isn’t enough to write down your goals; telling others about them and bringing them alongside you can increase your chances of actually staying on track.
"Research shows that couples who go on a diet together are more likely to lose weight and keep it off,” she writes. "Find an exercise partner or an accountability partner for any goal."
"Surround yourself with an uncompromising group that only give and demand the best,” Nieves adds. "A 2011 study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise found that the exercise habits of people you know have a positive influence on your own exercise habits.”
Be kind to yourself and others
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that exercise resolutions aren’t just relentless, never-ending self-improvement projects to work on the way you look. Sure, you may want to feel sexier, or you may want to fit into the clothes you like. But maybe you just want to be able to ride a bike with your grandkids, Nieves says, or be able to use a flight of stairs without having a heart attack.
“Your heart will get you through the tough times and through the negativity and disappointments that you may encounter from time to time.”
The point is that resolutions to exercise are ultimately resolutions to be there -- for yourself and your loved ones -- for as long as possible, in a meaningful and joy-filled way. Nieves frequently tells his clients that the best thing about their bodies isn’t their butt, or their toned arms. Instead, it’s their heart.
“My job, as a coach, is to get through your mind and into your heart,” he said. “Your heart will get you through the tough times and through the negativity and disappointments that you may encounter from time to time.”
“When you have heart, you will be strong and happy and there is nothing that will stop you!” he concluded.
And why not use that big heart of yours to help others? Whelan advises us to think bigger about our exercise goals to consider the lasting impact we want to have on other people.
"Most of us focus our New Year’s resolutions on all the little things about ourselves that we want to change: Go to the gym every day, lose weight, eat better,” Whelan said. "This year, consider adding an item to that resolutions list that’s bigger than you: volunteering for a specific charity, serving your community, anything that will take you out of yourself for a little while."
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