Millions of Americans ring in the New Year with lofty intentions to lose weight and exercise more, so why is it that by March, most New Year’s resolutions have fizzled like stale champagne? Typically it’s because people start out with unrealistic goals, misjudging the difficulty of breaking deeply ingrained habits. Impractical goals lead to disappointments that undermine the willpower people need to keep their New Year’s resolutions.

Fortunately, research shows that small, realistic changes in routines can help individuals kick bad habits, achieve measurable results and change their couch-potato ways. The key for nutrition and fitness professionals is to understand what drives new fitness habits and to know how to help clients maintain healthy-diet and fitness regimens that last long after New Year’s Day.

You Say You Want a Resolution

New Year’s resolutions to lose weight or increase physical activity are as predictable as the Times Square ball dropping at the stroke of midnight. Nearly half of all Americans make at least one resolution (Norcross, Ratzin & Payne 1989). Heading into 2012, 51% pledged to exercise more and 35% planned to lose weight (Thomson Reuters & NPR 2011). Some resolved to do both. Diet programs, self-help books and gym memberships skyrocket in January, but if history is any indicator, by January 7 a third will have broken their resolutions and by Valentine’s Day half will have lapsed. Come July 4, 60% of resolutions will have been forgotten (Norcross, Ratzin & Payne 1989). Must it be this way? Not necessarily. How well people keep a resolution over the long term depends on their willingness to change habits. Readiness to change, it turns out, is the number-one predictor of New Year’s resolution success (Norcross, Mrykalo & Blagys 2002).

Ready . . . or Not

Readiness to change is a predictable process that happens in five stages (Norcross, Krebs & Prochaska 2011). Each stage reflects a person’s perceptions of his or her current health behaviors and the person’s motivations to change in the future (Ashworth 1997). Stages-of-change-readiness questionnaires can identify resolution-makers who are interested in making immediate dietary and/or physical activity improvements (Taylor et al. 2004).

5 Stages of Change

  1. Precontemplation. The person has no intention of changing behavior in the next 6 months and may be either unaware of problematic behavior or demoralized by past failures.
  2. Contemplation. The person is aware of a need to change and intends to take action in the next 6 months but lacks commitment to actually start.
  3. Preparation. The person has decided to start changing behavior within a month and has a concrete plan of action, such as going to the gym or starting a specific diet plan.
  4. Action. The person has made specific changes in the past 6 months. Effective strategies include setting up rewards to encourage new behaviors and avoiding high-risk situations.
  5. Maintenance. The person has executed the desired behavior for 6 months and is working to prevent a relapse.

The most successful New Year’s resolution makers will ring in January 1 at Stage 4—already actively changing their behavior—but most start the year in Stages 2 or 3 (Norcross, Mrykalo & Blagys 2002). Before the turn of the year, fitness experts can help contemplators and preparers formulate regimens that will allow them to successfully begin the new year in Stage 4. Those who perceive weight as a health risk are more likely to be in the advanced stages of readiness, so discussing health-related risks associated with obesity and sedentary lifestyle may encourage change (Wee, Davis & Phillips 2005; Grandes et al. 2008).

Quit It! Squelching the Habit Loop

Fulfilling a resolution takes more than readiness to change. A strong predictor of success is self-efficacy, or people’s belief that they can change their habits (Norcross, Ratzin & Payne 1989). To help clients build confidence, you need to understand the nature of habit loops.

Habits are powerful—40% of daily actions are habits, not decisions (Wood, Quinn & Kashy 2002). Habits represent neural etchings of repeated behaviors that create an automatic routine; they allow the brain to conserve energy and avoid overstimulation. Habits happen in loops built from cues, routines and rewards (Duhigg 2012).

  • Cues are triggers that tell the brain to go on autopilot. Environmental or situational cues include time of day, location or certain odors. Emotional situations such as heated discussions or stress are cues, too.
  • Routines are physical, emotional or mental behaviors provoked by cues. Routines may be healthy, such as exercising in response to stress; or unhealthy, such as binge-eating after an argument.
  • Rewards are the prizes gained for completing habit loops. Rewards provide a sense of accomplishment, happiness or relief. Stress eaters often feel temporary relief following a binge. Joggers feel a sense of well-being or an endorphin high after a run (Duhigg 2012).

Cravings fuel habit loops and develop when the brain anticipates a reward before it’s delivered (Duhigg 2012). Imagine the scent of chocolate-chip cookies baking in the oven; those cookies smell good, and even though you aren’t really hungry, your mouth starts to water. Then you are told you can’t have one. When the anticipated reward is thwarted, cranky behavior, disappointment, frustration and anxiety ensue. Each person’s habits are driven by different cravings, cues and rewards.

Norcross, Ratzin & Payne (1989) found that successful New Year’s resolvers employed stimulus-control strategies that quashed certain cues; they also rewarded new routines with positive reinforcement and used willpower to resist temptation.

Flexing the Willpower Muscle

The cornerstone of successful behavior change is willpower, a learnable skill. Self-regulation, or the ability to resist temptation, can be strengthened, but like any muscle, willpower requires energy to sustain its activity (Hofmann et al. 2012). If a job or activity takes a lot of self-control, willpower wanes.

Drastic changes like crash diets starve willpower and lead to dietary destruction. Similarly, intense exercise regimens tax self-discipline. Willpower fatigue causes most resolvers to fail (Norcross, Mrykalo & Blagys 2002); to succeed, they need to conserve their willpower by making small changes, so that temptation is easier to resist.

A technique called “sandwiching” fosters small habit changes. When a new habit is camouflaged by something familiar, success is more likely because doing something familiar requires less willpower than doing something new (Duhigg 2012). Want clients to eat more veggies? Have them add veggies to foods they already like; for, example, they could add spinach to spaghetti or put shaved carrots in tomato soup.

Tips for Successful Habit Change

Old habits never die. Once a neural habit pathway is forged, it remains (Duhigg 2012). Cues are associated with certain rewards, and habit strength increases when the repeated behavior produces satisfactory experiences (van ’t Reit et al. 2011). Therefore, to change a habit, the old cue and reward are retained, but they’re countered with a new routine that produces the same gratifying feeling (Duhigg 2012). How to get there:

  1. Decide to change. Committing to change is a predictor of success (Duhigg 2012).
  2. Believe in change. When believing in change becomes a habit, change becomes real (Duhigg 2012).
  3. Pick one specific habit to change. Focusing on just one habit conserves willpower (Duhigg 2012).
  4. Identify the routine. Journaling helps identify repeated behaviors (Hollis et al. 2008).
  5. Isolate the cue. Writing down the location, the time, the emotional state, who was present and the action/event that took place before an urge occurred helps identify the trigger (Duhigg 2012).
  6. Experiment with rewards. Trying different rewards can isolate a craving (Duhigg 2012).
  7. Plan. Deciding what to do to revise the old habit loop is the last step (Duhigg 2012).

The Realistic Resolution Solution

“We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.” —Edith Lovejoy Pierce

Change one habit. Changing too many habits at once can weaken willpower. Cultivating keystone habits has a ripple effect, improving other areas of life (Duhigg 2012; Hofmann et al. 2012).

Keep it simple. Weight loss and fitness resolutions should be within clients’ reach with small daily changes. Drastic resolutions like “I will never eat” or “I will always exercise every day” limit the likelihood of success. Instead, have clients try, “Today I’m going to . . . eat one more serving of vegetables, . . . walk a little farther, . . . take the stairs.”

Write it down. Self-monitoring strengthens strength control. Journaling and food-and-exercise logs boost willpower and encourage habit change. In a study of nearly 1,600 obese adults, food diaries resulted in significantly more weight loss (Hollis et al. 2008). Logs increase the odds of successful weight loss and maintenance of fitness goals (Lally, Chipperfield & Wardle 2008).

Get social. Social support improves adherence. Making resolutions known to friends and family helps garner support when temptation strikes (Gruber 2008).

Give it time. Positive habits require development of new neural pathways, a process that takes at least 3 weeks. Most resolution makers give up too early. Persistence is critical (Duhigg 2012).

Create positive rewards. Successful resolution makers visualize new routines and allow rewards (Duhigg 2012).

Be ready for relapses. New Year’s resolutions often meet their demise with the first relapse. Drastic changes and stressful life events decrease willpower. To stay on course, clients will need a prepared plan for dealing with stress (Duhigg 2012).

New Year’s Day beckons self-improvement resolutions, but many abandon their goals before the last college bowl game is played. Resolution fatigue can be abated if fitness professionals use readiness strategies and habit-based interventions to create realistic regimens (Verheijden et al. 2005). Cheers to a healthy and rewarding 2013! l