Dear Doctor: I’ve read that most New Year’s resolutions don’t even make it to March, and considering what happened to my plan to start running, I totally believe it. What can I do to be successful?
Dear Reader: You’re one of the estimated one-third of Americans who decided to change something about their lives in the new year. And according to a recent survey by YouGov, your goal to start exercising is among the most popular resolutions. (Saving money, losing weight, healthy eating and lessening stress round out the top five.) But as the hundreds of self-help books published each year remind us, change is hard. Even the most disciplined person does better with a game plan.
First, it’s important to be as specific as possible about your goal, which means deciding what success will look like. Is it running a set number of days per week? Running a certain distance? Competing in a specific race? Each of these are concrete objectives in which success is recognizable. Once you’re clear about what you want, you’re ready for the next step, which is a plan for how to achieve it. The trick here is to break down the main goal into reasonable and realistic increments.
For non-runners, a great way to start is with a daily 20-minute walk. Walking is easy, you can do it anywhere and it will jump-start the habit of regular exercise. Once this becomes part of your daily life, you can begin to add a few minutes of running into your walk. Alternate running and walking and gradually -- that’s an important word when it comes to achieving lasting change -- work toward easing that 20-minute walk into a 20-minute run.
If that’s enough, congratulations, you made it! If you want to push further, continue with this approach. Identify your new goal, then break it down into incremental steps you know you can stick with. Track your progress, and when you hit a milestone, celebrate with a reward. Whether the process of attaining the final goal takes weeks or months or even the entire year doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you’re taking the time to weave a new habit into your daily life.
All of which brings us to the flip side of progress, which is the inevitable slips and stalls that happen along the way. Chances are, you’ll fall off the resolution wagon at some point; it’s important to understand that you haven’t failed. If it’s a small blip, forgive yourself and return to your regular routine. If you’ve taken a sustained break and lost ground, forgive yourself and start from scratch.
Rebooting the pursuit of a goal can be a challenge, which is why being part of a like-minded community is so helpful. Whether it’s a friend or family member, a trainer at a gym, an employer’s wellness program or a local running club, having someone to share the journey with can make a big difference. If a running club sounds good to you, the Road Runners Club of America keeps an extensive list at their website, rrca.org.
(Send your questions to email@example.com, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)