Adopt these proven strategies from doctors, dietitians, and other mind-body pros.
Here’s a popular stat that surfaces every January: More than 40 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, yet less than 10 percent actually achieve them.
Who are these achievers? We can’t be certain, but we’re willing to bet a good portion consists of doctors, trainers, dietitians, or other health professionals. It’s not that these people are immune to the challenges that so often set others back, but rather they’ve learned over the years how to overcome them.
Here are the strategies nine such experts say work best for staying on course all year—and beyond.
1. Start with a Modified Version of Your Goal
Whether it’s December 26, January 10, or any other day of the year, it’s the perfect time to start getting healthier. “Personally, I organize all of the facets of my resolution ahead of time and begin before January 1 in a modified way,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama.
“For instance, I have found that Pilates and flexibility exercise are increasingly beneficial to me, so I pulled out my favorite Pilates DVD and started by adding five minutes to my regular routine right away.”
By starting with just five minutes, you don’t change much or feel overwhelmed. Eventually, you can up it to, say, 15 minutes two or three times per week, or whatever your ultimate goal is. “If I can do five minutes consistently, adding just 10 minutes more is very doable,” Olson says.
If flexibility is something you’re working on, check out our guide to the number-one stretch older adults should be doing.
2. Focus on Small, Measurable, and Achievable Steps
“Instead of saying, ‘I want to lose 10 pounds,’ I say, ‘I want to increase my exercise by 10 minutes a day,’ or something along those lines,” says Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., R.D., a senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center.
The more specific—and realistic—you can be, the better. A doable goal and little victories each day or week will help you stay encouraged. “Keeping positive has measurable benefits for our health,” Hunnes says.
3. Schedule a Monthly Date with Accountability Buddies
“For the past few years, a group of friends and I have chosen a fun activity like going for a walk, seeing a movie, or attending a yoga class together to do first, and then we each make a promise to the group that we will work on one behavior for the four weeks that follow,” says Katie A. Rickel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Durham, North Carolina.
It’s important that everyone selects a behavior over which they have complete control (“I will walk for 10 minutes at least three times each week,” for example) rather than an outcome (“I will lose 10 pounds”), she says.
“Before we part ways, we make a plan to repeat the same activity exactly four weeks from now and promise to share our experience,” Rickel says. “It’s a given that we’ll all encounter obstacles and struggles, so we always return to the follow-up confident that we will be embraced, accepted, and encouraged regardless of our success in meeting our stated goals.”
4. Think Beyond Fixing a Problem
Set your sights higher than mere solutions to problems, and focus on what you really want, says Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Mindful Aging: Embracing Your Life After 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose, and Joy. “The difference in results is enormous,” she says.
“A clear example is with health: If you’re dealing with an illness, focusing on the solution would mean seeking a cure,” Brandt says. “But if the goal is not just the elimination of that illness but rather vibrant health, removing the illness may not achieve that.”
A better approach: “I focus on what it is I’m really after—excellent health—and I go about discovering and doing what it takes to achieve that.”
5. Check Your Progress Every Week—and Adjust as Needed
“Once a week, I remind myself—via scheduled reminders on my smartphone, notations in my pocket calendar, or Post-it notes on my fridge—to evaluate how I’ve done in the past week,” says Ellen Slawsby, Ph.D., director of pain services at Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“By doing this, we’re also reaffirming that this is an important goal, and if we didn’t do well this past week, then we will commit to doing better next week.”
6. Schedule Annual Medical Tests
“Every June and December, I get a blood test to check my adrenals, thyroid gland, reproductive hormones, sugar, and vitamin D3 levels to make sure that they remain at youthful levels,” says Prudence Hall, M.D., founder of The Hall Center in Santa Monica, California. “This allows me to maintain high energy, emotional happiness, and a strong mind—all of which allow me to follow through with any decisions I make for myself.”
Of course, the exact medical tests for you may be different, but the point is the same: Plan now for any appointments you may need or have been putting off. Not sure how your blood pressure or cholesterol numbers are? Got nagging pain or balance issues that have been slowing you down? Checking in with your doc can help you stay as active, social, and confident as possible.
7. Remember Why You Started—and Be Patient
“When seeking to keep a resolution, I always try to find a good reason to move toward a habit [better health, for example], rather than to avoid the consequence of not doing it, like gaining weight,” says Paul B. Davidson, Ph.D., director of behavioral services at the Center for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“While fear of the stick may get us moving initially, it is usually the draw of the carrot that keeps us going,” he says. “Motivation and reinforcement are key to staying with any new habit, as we need to overcome old learning, which takes about two months to accomplish.”
8. Make It Personal
“Don’t copy your friends, partner, or spouse,” says Taz Bhatia, M.D., an integrative medicine physician and author of Super Woman RX. “For example, if I say, ‘I want to get as fit as my friend,’ I am setting myself up for failure,” she says. “I never base my resolutions off of someone else.”
9. Embrace Helpful Technology
“I use apps to help keep any New Year’s resolutions,” says Scott Weiss, D.P.T., C.S.C.S, a physical therapist and exercise physiologist based in New York City. “You’re never too old to learn how to use some of the more simple apps,” he says. Some of his favorites:
- Lose It, a weight loss app that helps you track calories and plan meals
- The Mindfulness App, for beginning and practicing meditation
- Mint, an excellent app for saving more and spending less money
- SPACE, an app that helps you monitor mobile phone use
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