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Make a Pledge: Research on New Year's Resolutions Says What Works, What Won't

By L. K. Regan

New year's day is coming fast, and with it, the desire to make a change for 2010. Call it a resolution, call it a goal, call it a renewed sense of purpose—many of us will be taking a look at ourselves come January 1st. But research shows that resolutions don't stick if they're not planned well in advance. So, over the next few weeks we're going to check in with a few of our regular contributing trainers for advice on making changes in health and fitness in the new year. And to get us in the mood, we've got the latest research from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) on making effective resolutions.

Resolution Realities
New year's resolutions are a constant, with around two-thirds of Americans making them each year by some estimates. The nature of those resolutions seems to vary a bit: a 1998 study from the University of Washington cited the most popular resolutions as exercising, followed by eating better and reducing consumption of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes. But a 2008 consumer survey found getting out of debt or saving money among the top three—perhaps a sign of the times. Overall, however, all of these goals suffer a similar fate: by the end of January, over a third of people have broken their resolutions. According to the Washington survey, it may take multiple attempts at a resolution to make it stick—some 75 percent of people will fail on their first attempt.

So, how can you maximize your chances of being in the successful minority? ACSM has weighed in with its own research on finding success, particularly in fitness-related goals. They offer a list of tips and strategies based on that research; we've added in a few concrete suggestions based on it to get you going:

  1. Plan ahead. Holidays bring stress—but working out along with that stress will not only battle the bulge, but give you a better mood. According to a study in ACSM’s official journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise®. people who perform moderate exercise (even just 30 minutes of walking) along with a few stress management techniques report better mood and less body weight.
  2. Find your own reason to get fit. Men and women have different reasons for getting in shape, ACSM's research shows. A study of 83 people found that men worked out to improve their physique, while women sought a healthy lifestyle. Both became equally committed to their workouts, but setting up a fitness practice that meets your reasons for working out in the first place will help you to stay on track.
  3. Test your competitive side. Just going to the gym and drilling away is not so inspiring for the long haul. Another ACSM study found that motivation to be physically active was higher when sports—instead of just exercise—were involved. Some gyms run intramural teams; some cities or communities will have sports clubs. Check it out and see if there's a team you can join. Making some friends will also help to keep you accountable.
  4. Stay fit in short bouts. Researchers found that those who exercised in three, 10-minute segments per day were more likely to stay physically active compared to those who exercised continuously for 30 minutes. Buy a jump-rope, for instance, and jump for 10 minutes when you get home from work. Or, squeeze in a short jog on your lunch break; you don't have time for a marathon, but a few times around the block? That might work.
  5. Determine your barriers. Roadblocks to exercise are common—you don’t have enough time, lack the right resources, or just don’t know what to do to stay fit. Take ACSM’s free assessment of exercise barriers at (“Keys to Exercise” tab). All of those barriers are moveable—but only if you first identify them, and find a plan to tackle them.
The University of Washington's 1998 study identified a few keys to resolution success that you might also want to bear in mind. First, last minute resolutions don't stick—planning is everything. Successful resolutioners, the researchers found, have a strong commitment to change; have coping strategies for the inevitable problems that will arise; and have ways of tracking their progress—monitoring and feedback are key. What they found does not work: resolutions made at the last minute, or based on whatever is bugging you at 11:59 on December 31st; and resolutions framed in absolutes ("I will never eat again."). Cut yourself a little slack, generate a plan, and commit to a great 2010.

And as you're thinking about those goals, stay tuned for advice from our trainers!