It’s the time of year where you may be starting to feel the pain of keeping up your New Year’s resolutions. For example, a lot of us try to commit to starting a healthier lifestyle in the New Year. This may include changing our eating habits, working out more or both in the effort to lose weight or just feel healthier.
Sticking to your healthy lifestyle resolutions involves a lot of mental strength, and it helps to understand some of the things that are going on in your head when you get the urge to give up on your goals. Dr. Yazhini Srivathsal, psychiatrist at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, explains why we get this urge to give up and how we can plan to stick to our goals.
The Science Behind Giving In
So, why is it so hard for us to maintain a healthy lifestyle? Dr. Srivathsal explains that this can be understood by learning the difference between the primitive and adult parts of our brain.
The primitive part of our brain helps us in survival. It is impulsive, wants instant gratification, depends on dopamine and often acts like a toddler. This is the part of your brain that, when it sees a donut, says, “Let’s eat the donut. I love donuts – the last time I ate a donut it made me so happy.”
The adult part of our brain is rational. It is the reasoning part of our brain that helps us think things through. This is the part of our brain that reminds us that it might not be a good idea to eat that donut now, as it was not a part of your eating plan for today or part of your resolution.
Learning about these two parts of your brain will help you understand why you struggle at times with part of you wanting to stick to your resolution, while part of you resists. If one of your goals is to give up snacking, you will have to listen to the rational adult brain. If you’re used to snacking at 3 o’clock every day, when the clock strikes 3, your primitive brain will tell you that if you don’t have your snack everything will fall apart.
Your adult brain, on the other hand, knows that everything will be okay even if you don’t have the snack, so you must learn to listen to that voice. You can also remind yourself that although you might get happiness from eating a snack, you might get even more happiness from sticking to your resolutions and achieving your goals, be it fitting into a smaller size pair of pants or not getting winded walking up the stairs.
Dr. Srivathsal also clarifies that if you love something--let’s say desserts--you can plan to eat it sometimes instead of giving in to every urge that arises. For example, you can decide you will eat a dessert only on Saturdays after dinner. Just make sure you stick to whatever plan you decide on and do not make an impulsive decision to eat dessert another time just because you see it or are having a stressful day. You’ve probably heard of the concept of a “cheat meal.” Dr. Srivathsal recommends thinking of this more as a pleasure meal, since this has more of a positive connotation.
Understanding the “Why” Behind Your Goal
Dr. Srivathsal emphasizes it is important to have the right intentions surrounding your goals. Having a goal to lose weight or be healthier because you hate the way you look right now, is not a healthy way to begin your resolution. Dr. Srivathsal explains that people with eating disorders are often in a very negative frame of mind that started with not loving themselves and the way they look. When you are feeling that negatively about yourself, it is very hard to love yourself and live a healthy lifestyle.
Therefore, you are going to be much more successful with your resolution of staying healthy if you frame your goal in a positive light. Maybe your doctor said you would be a lot healthier if you lost 20 pounds, and you really want to reach that goal. Maybe you’ve been feeling more tired than usual and want to boost your energy levels by sticking to a more balanced diet and exercise routine. Maybe you’ve found that you genuinely enjoy cooking healthy meals and have found an exercise routine that excites you, so you want to stick to your goals to boost your overall happiness.
Committing to a healthier lifestyle is a very admirable New Year’s resolution. It is simply important that these goals are coming from a positive rather than negative place.
Make a Realistic Plan
Shifting to a healthy lifestyle is more than just a short-term goal – it can and should be a lifelong commitment. Therefore, it’s important to make a realistic plan and stick to it.
Dr. Srivathsal says that the first step is to figure out where you see yourself at the end of the year. Once you have that goal in mind, you can figure out a plan to get there. Whether your goal is to lose 50 pounds by the end of the year, shave 5 minutes off the time it takes you to run a mile or go to the gym consistently 4 times a week, knowing what that goal is will enable you to create a plan to reach it. You can also set little check-ins for yourself to help you stay on track.
We cannot emphasize enough the importance of setting a goal for yourself that is realistic. If you haven’t stepped into the gym for a year, then a resolution to go to the gym every single day might not be super realistic. Maybe, instead, you set a goal that, by the end of the year, you would like to be consistently going to the gym 5 times a week and you develop a strategy to get there. Maybe your plan includes starting off the year going to the gym 2 days a week, moving to 3 days a week by April, 4 days a week by August and finally 5 days a week. This more realistic plan is going to be better long-term than going to the gym every day for the first 15 days of the month, burning out and never going again.
So, what should you do now?
We all want instant gratification and get very excited about our resolutions to start. A few weeks in, many of us realize how difficult it is to commit, so we give up. If you’ve set a resolution and think you might need to adjust it a bit to make it more realistic, then do it. If you haven’t set a resolution and are thinking you might like to try, it is never too late to set a goal for yourself. We hope that some of this advice from Dr. Srivathsal will help you realize your goals of becoming even better versions of yourself.
For some additional tips on shifting to a healthier lifestyle, check out our blog, 5 Ways to Cut the Garbage from Your Diet.