There’s no way around it: Sticking to a New Year’s resolution can be incredibly difficult. It’s so hard, in fact, that there’s even a national day dedicated to the average dropoff time: According to a 2019 study conducted by Strava, a social network for athletes, most people are likely to abandon their resolutions right around January 19—a milestone aptly dubbed “Quitter’s Day.”
As if that weren’t discouraging enough, a CityLab analysis cross-referencing Strava’s findings with data from Google Trends, a fitness trade association and Foursquare check-ins came up with another day to watch out for in February. By about 40 days into the new year, gym-goers are likely to hit “Fall Off the Wagon Day,” the window when visits to fast-food restaurants overtake gym attendance.
It all makes sense when you think about it: Gyms can be crowded and intimidating to newcomers, and getting started with weight loss can feel daunting when you’ve set a big goal for yourself without anyone to help you get there. But even if you’ve strayed from a weight loss goal you set for yourself back in December, don’t throw in the towel just yet.
There are several reasons that New Year’s resolutions often don’t last, and understanding what makes those hopes so likely to fail can also be the key to setting more effective goals. That’s really good news for the 34% of Americans who set resolutions this year, according to a new YouGov poll, and especially for the 19% who said they’re resolving to lose weight.
To get some more clarity, we asked some experts what tends to go wrong with New Year’s resolutions—and how to set more manageable goals when it comes to weight loss, fitness and nutrition.
First, it’s important to consider that many people don’t necessarily set their resolutions with a plan in mind. Non-specific resolutions are much harder to keep. So however tempting it might be to get caught up in the fitness-marketing frenzy of the new year, try not to lose sight of what your follow-through will look like after the gym discounts fade.
Jessica Yu, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and Senior Director of Patient Experience at Hims & Hers, explains that it’s incredibly important to be concrete when attempting to make any changes related to health behaviors. “It’s not enough to say, ‘I want to lose weight,’” Dr. Yu says. “You really have to be able to say, ‘I want to lose X amount of weight, and these are the things I’m going to do to get there.’”
Plenty of data backs that up: For example, a 2020 study by researchers in Sweden and the United Kingdom analyzed participants with two different outlooks on their New Year’s resolutions.
In one group, respondents were asked to formulate goals based on avoidance of negative behaviors, and respondents in another group were asked to formulate goals based on sticking to an approach they actively developed. Researchers found that 58.9% of the approach-oriented group considered themselves successful after a year, compared to 47.1% of participants in the avoidance-oriented group.
For many people, measuring success by how much you’ve managed to restrict yourself discourages the resilience, flexibility and openness required to safely and healthily achieve fitness or weight loss-oriented goals.
As Dr. Yu points out, subscribing to all-or-nothing thinking can make it very difficult to implement long-lasting lifestyle changes. The patients she’s seen who have the hardest time maintaining their motivation are the ones who set grandiose resolutions and feel guilty when they can’t adhere to the lofty expectations they’ve set for themselves.
One of the tools that the approach-based participants in the Swedish study utilized discourages this kind of thinking. The SMART criteria stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic (or relevant) and timely—and it can be an incredibly helpful rubric for establishing personalized goals that don’t feel like you’re setting yourself up to fail.
Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA, a physician specializing in obesity medicine, recommends SMART as one valuable resource because it can help keep people from biting off more than they can chew.
“It’s best to make gentle to moderate changes to your lifestyle that you can sustain,” Dr. Primack, Senior Vice President of Weight Management at Hims & Hers, says. Put more simply, it’s much less likely that anyone will see long-term success “going from zero workouts a week to seven workouts a week [than if they] choose maybe three workouts a week for the first few months and, when that becomes a habit, then go to four or five times per week.”
Research has shown that it takes 66 days for a habit to become automatic, so that kind of measured approach is important when it comes to diet changes, too.
Avoiding extreme diets that focus on restriction—like cutting out all carbs, for example—since our bodies need many different kinds of food to function is a good place to start to meet long-term goals. “Rigid diets are not a lifestyle and usually only last for a short period of time,” says Tiffani Bachus, RDN, a dietitian and certified personal trainer who co-founded the wellness resource U Rock Girl with fellow RDN Erin Macdonald.
Of course, not everyone can see the results they want—or need—just by setting, and even sticking to, seemingly achievable goals on their own. Weight loss and long-term management of obesity can take significant resources.
Seeking out help can take on several different forms: Working with nutritionists or registered dietitians is one option. Some people might turn instead to primary care, whether in-person or via telemedicine, to evaluate whether medical interventions or medications might be a good fit.
No matter which path(s) you end up choosing, it’s important to remember that tending to your health is a long-term endeavor—one that’s measured by a whole lot more than the number you see on the scale on any given day.
As Dr. Primack put it, think of it like gardening. One of the most important assets you can have is patience: “The day you plant an orange tree, you do not get the fruit. Water it, fertilize it and wait. The trunk grows a bit—water it, fertilize it and wait. The branches grow—then water it, fertilize it and wait. Maybe the next season or the one after that, you will get fruit.”
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Dr. Craig Primack MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA is a physician specializing in obesity medicine.
He completed a combined residency in Internal Medicine and in Pediatrics at Banner University- Phoenix, and Phoenix Children's Hospital. He received post-residency training in Obesity Medicine and is one of about 7,000 physicians in the U.S. certified by the American Board of Obesity Medicine.
In 2006, Dr. Primack co-founded Scottdale Weight Loss Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he began practicing full-time obesity medicine. Scottsdale Weight Loss Center has grown since then to six obesity medicine clinicians in four locations around the greater Phoenix Metropolitan area.
From 2019–2021, he served as president of the Obesity Medicine Association (OMA), a society of over 5,000 clinicians dedicated to clinical obesity medicine. He has been on the OMA board since 2010, currently serving as ex-officio trustee.
Dr. Primack routinely does media interviews regarding weight loss and regularly speaks around the country educating medical professionals about weight loss and obesity care. He is co-author of the book, “Chasing Diets.”
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