New Year’s Resolutions


“This year I will… (insert whatever gargantuan tried-for-before-but-never-accomplished miracle you wish; for our purposes here we’ll say:) get in shape.”
thousands of new gym members

Now’s the time of year when many a well meaning American joins a gym, vows to give up their favorite food, start eating their least favorite food, exercise like Hercules, change their physique… and generally repeat a pattern they’ve performed before–which includes struggle and failure.  Some time around the end of March the pattern will look the same as last year: Minimal weight lost.  Resolution forgotten.  (The good news for me is that a lot of these fine folks will enlist my assistance in achieving their goals.  My genuine hope is that I help create new exercise lovers.)  Is there a way to actually realize our once and future fitness goals?  Very likely.

Your Brain Doesn’t Have a New Year’s Resolution

First, why do we fail at these goals in the first place?  A recent article in the Miami Herald, New Year’s resolutions?  Brain can sabotage success discuss the role of the brain in this process.  Essentially the immediate reward often outweighs the long-term results we’re seeking.  Fudge tastes good now.  Getting strong and lean takes weeks.  Put another way: It’s the dopamine stupid.

Dopamine is released during rewarding experiences.  Sex, tasty food, various drugs, fun times all release dopamine.  We tend to form habits around the activities that release dopamine.  These habits and rituals become very hard wired in our brain.  Examples include a smoke after a meal, snacks in front of the TV, junk food at the movie.  Further, we like our dopamine now not later.  Thus that tasty dessert provides the deeply wired payoff we want.  For someone new to exercise or who’s had negative experiences with exercise, there’s not much dopamine to be found at the gym.

Survival, the Brain & Energy Expenditure

Very nearly every feeling, thought, drive and signal in our bodies is there for our survival.  Neurological activity is calorically expensive.  (That is, we use a lot of calories to perform brain functions such as learning new skills.  Exercise and new eating habits are definitely skills).  If we use up too many calories then we’ll die.  Our brain knows all this, and here lies the foundation of thwarted resolutions.

Drastic changes such as those often attempted by Resolutioners makes the brain say, “Whoa!  We need to avoid all this new hard work or we might DIE!”  Plus there’s no dopamine involved in all this new activity–but the stress of all this change makes us seek out our beloved dopamine/fudge/ice cream/onion rings/etc.  The result is we have a really hard time sticking to our big goal.  So how do we proceed?

Threat Modulation for a Successful Resolution

We talk extensively in Z-Health about threats and threat modulation.  We learn that small, incremental changes are far less threatening to our survival instincts than drastic changes.  We tend to stick with small changes better than big changes.  With regard to our fitness resolutions, we have several considerations in this direction.

First we might consider diet and exercise.  These are two different things.  Someone may well be ready to start exercising but not at all ready to make dietary changes or vice versa.  If we try to change both aspects then we will find it tough going.  Therefore we should start making changes where success is most likely to occur.

Second, within either diet or exercise, we should consider what’s ideal versus what’s truly realistic.  If your favorite food is doughnuts for breakfast then yes, giving them up completely is a great idea.  But in reality it likely isn’t happening.  But can we get someone to go from eating doughnuts for breakfast five days a week to only four days a week?  Maybe.  Or can this person go from three doughnuts a day to three doughnuts every other day–and only two doughnuts on the other days?  Sounds reasonable.  These are rather small steps–but they are steps forward.

Similarly, many Resolutioners come into the gym telling themselves and anyone who’ll listen that they’re ready to work extremely hard every day of the week.

“I’m not fooling around this time!  I want to see results–and I want to see them fast!  I’ll do Whatever It Takes!”

Yet typically these folks aren’t undertaking any exercise at all.  So going from no exercise to a superhuman level of exercise is again a threat to our survival with no dopamine payoff.  Great way to sabotage the resolution.  It’s far more realistic for someone to go from no days per week of exercise to two days.  Then a couple of weeks later add another day.

(Oddly enough, a trainer has a powerful tool to employ when someone talks about undertaking unrealistically lofty s actions: We say, “Nope.  Don’t do that.”  They’ll likely start arguing for their own beneficial change.  It works off a phenomenon called the righting reflex.  Think of a parent giving a kid orders.  “Do this.”  “Don’t do that.”  He or she will resist whatever they’re told to do or not do.  Tell someone what they already know such as “You need to start exercising,” and they’ll likely give you reasons why they can’t or won’t. In contrast, tell a someone NOT to exercise too much  and suddenly he or she will start agitating to exercise.  They’ll argue against their own worst habits.)

Tortoise vs. the Hare

So again, in the ideal situation, someone who eats garbage and never exercises should some day eat well and exercise regularly.  In order to get to this new lifestyle though, gradual, non-threatening change is the way to go if we want to achieve our fitness goal at all, much less maintain our new sleek physique.

So we might consider only changing one part of this equation.  We might create a small, very achievable goal such as dedicating one hour, twice a week to exercising with a trainer for four weeks.  If the clieint achieves this goal then they’ve found success and success begets success.  (Very likely they’re already feeling better from this moderate level of exercise and they want to feel even better.)  We might then add one day of exercise and also consider dedicating one day per week to healthy eating. Psychologically, if the client experiences success–even on a small scale–we get that dopamine payoff and suddenly they’ve developed an exercise habit.  We’re now well on the road to realizing our big goal.

Deliberate Action

Fitness goals don’t make themselves happen.  Any number of lofty goals can be achieved but there must be a mindful effort toward these goals.  If our current habits got us into the shape we’re in now, then new actions are required in order to get us into better shape.  Small changes are ideal–but there must be changes!

I typically tell clients that they have many choices throughout the day of what to eat and whether or not to exercise.  At some point they must make at least one healthier decision.  If all they can do is make ONE healthier choice today then they’ve moved forward.  Maybe they make one single better choice every other day.  Great!  This is progress.

Success is a guarantee if healthy new habits replace old unhealthy habits.  The body has no choice but to adapt to the consumption of healthy food and the execution of hard physical work.  Guaranteed.  The changes we want will not happen as fast as we want them to–they never do!–but the New Year’s Resolution can become reality if it’s pursued correctly.