Wellness Resolutions and Setting SMART Goals in the New Year
Justin Grand, Associate Executive
Central Bucks Region, YMCA of Bucks and Hunterdon Counties
January is a great time to turn over a new leaf in personal health and wellness. Millions of Americans set New Year’s resolutions every year, over half of which relate to improving personal health. However, nearly 80 percent of those who set health resolutions fall off the wagon within the first six months. Why is that? How do we avoid the curse?
A 2017 Psychology Today review asking similar questions noted the research of University of Maryland Professor Seppo Iso-Aloha, published in the Journal of Natural Science. Iso-Aloha found two major factors that led resolutionists to fall short of their health goals:
The difference between sincerely wanting (choice) to exercise versus understanding one’s need to exercise, akin to being told what to do; and
The conflicts of how one spends their leisure time. This impediment is, in part, the consequence of having to make time to exercise outside of one’s work hours. Simply put, our leisure time is precious, and it is easier for most of us to do practically anything else during that time besides work out.
How do we overcome?
Upon boarding the wellness train (exercising more, eating healthy, or ceasing an unhealthy habit), we are highly motivated and really want it. According to Iso-Aloha’s 2017 report, this initial want-to should be enough to get us going into the first of three stages indicative of long term success. In the first stage we are actively pursuing healthy change. The key, at that point, is to create a plan and stick to it, with almost unrelenting commitment to a routine. During the second stage, the goal is to drive that first wave motivation into habit, so that the healthy change in behavior becomes second nature, or unconscious. This second stage can easily last six months, so we’re in for the long haul. During this second stage, we have to respond to our environment and stimuli (called cues) with the want to choose the change. Exercise is an easy example to use to illustrate the professor’s point. The key to transitioning from the second stage to the third, or unconscious habitual stage, is seeing what would ordinarily be cues to avoid exercise (ex.: mental exhaustion from a hard day at work and/or parenting), and converting them into cues to exercise. Once we are in this second stage we are no longer provoked by that initial new year’s resolution, so we must stubbornly convert every excuse NOT to exercise into a REASON to exercise! I am sure many readers can relate to the falling off the wagon at around six months. We lose the want.
The question remains, can we self-talk through it? I am beat from work and I just want to kick off my shoes and melt into the couch with a glass of wine, must change to, I am beat from work so I’d better get my sneakers on and hit the gym (or go for a run, walk, etc.). Otherwise the exercise wanes and fails to become truly habitual.
Breaking down any complex goals into simple, achievable components increases the chances of habituating new healthy behaviors. Setting S.M.A.R.T. goals can help:
- Specific - Identify specific goals, i.e., I am going to jog for an hour, three times per week (Note: the goal should be behavioral, rather than outcome-oriented such as “losing weight,” which is not only impacted by change in behavior)
- Measurable - How can you quantify and track progress? Plan how you will scaffold according to measurables such as, I jogged for 15 minutes Monday, will jog another 15 minutes Wednesday, but will jog 20 minutes Friday. Note your plan versus actual achievement
- Attainable - Check yourself. Do you feel good about the ability to achieve the goal? Were my first two 15 minute jogs strong enough to add five minutes to my third jog?
- Time-bound - Set a date to achieve your goal for better tracking towards the goal, and modification based on how you determined attainability. In three month’s time I will be at my specific jogging goal.
Applying SMART goals to get to that third, habitual stage of healthy behavior will be helpful as long as we stick to the routine, actively overturn the cues that would in the past lead to old unhealthy habits, and build new attainable goals upon successful achievement of earlier SMART goals. After all, the overall goal is to not have to set the same New Year’s Resolution a year from now.
Looking for some help achieving your health and wellness goals for 2023? The Y can help! Visit your local YMCA of Bucks and Hunterdon Counties branch, or learn about YMCA personal, partner and team training opportunities here.
About the Author
Justin Grand is the Associate Executive for the Central Bucks Region for the YMCA of Bucks and Hunterdon Counties. Justin earned his Bachelors of Science in Sports Management and minor in Economics from Rutgers University in 2010. Justin has served the YMCA community since 2015, and has supported the membership and health and wellness industry since 2010.
Iso-Ahola, S.E., Conscious-Nonconscious Processing Explains Why Some People Exercise but Most Don’t. Journal of Nature and Science (JNSCI), Vol.3, No.6, e384, 2017.
Konstantinovsky, Michelle (2022, January 3) The Psychology Behind New Year’s Resolutions, WebMD
Persaud, M.D., R., and Bruggen M.D., P. (2017, December 31) Psychology Explains New Year Resolutions, Hits and Misses, Psychology Today,