How to Stick to Your New Health Goals, According to Science
New Year’s resolutions are an annual ritual of setting intentions for self-improvement, and health behavior goals — such as improving healthy eating and physical activity — are among the more popular. Unfortunately, not sticking to these new goals is so common that it’s become a cliché.
This is supported by research evidence. Studies have repeatedly shown that more than half of people who form health behavior intentions do not adopt them.
There are caveats to this stat, of course. Short-term health behavior goals are more likely to be adopted than in the long run, and those who revert to a pattern of behavior they used to practice are more likely to follow through on their intentions compared to those who adopt a new health behavior.
It is important to note that having the intention to change behavior is an essential first step. Few people regularly adopt healthy behaviors without these initial good intentions. Sticking to health behavior goals, however, is the critical factor.
Why do we struggle with health behavior goals?
Self-regulation is a broad research topic in psychology. As a professor of health psychology, my research focuses on understanding the “intention-behaviour gap” in physical activity and testing interventions that can help bridge the gap. this gap.
My own research and the studies of my colleagues have shown that the difficulty in following through on intentions often stems from two sources. The first concerns strategic challenges, which are flawed approaches to thinking about goals and behavior. The second is that of fundamental human tendencies in the face of what psychologists call approach/avoidance conflict: when something is both attractive and unpleasant.
In terms of strategic challenges, the details of the goal itself can be one of the first indicators of a person’s difficulty. For example, the intention to engage in physical activity is often based on desired long-term results (such as weight control, physical fitness and chronic disease risk reduction) without giving due consideration to the the time and effort needed to engage in regular physical activity itself.
Another key strategic challenge is the inability to consider multiple goals, which is likely to underestimate resources needed to perform other behaviors. Juggling multiple goals is one of the main reasons new intentions are often dropped: new behaviors like exercise have to compete or coincide with all the other things a person needs or wants to do.
Contemporary research also shows that people can have automatic tendencies that, on the whole, tend to derail health behaviors. For example, people have a fundamental underlying tendency to address pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant experiences.
Physical activity can be a negative experience for many, as it causes the body to stop resting and experience exhaustion and discomfort. This negative experience during the activity is more predictive of future behavior than positive feelings after a period of physical activity is completed.
In a related way, research from evolutionary biology supported a basic human tendency to minimize energy costs, which stems from an evolutionary survival necessity. This causes people to tend to avoid unnecessary movement (like exercise) while increasing their energy stores (munching on energy-dense foods), creating a underlying temptation to abandon our healthy eating and physical activity plans.
Effective Strategies for Staying True to Intentions
When we understand why we are not applying our new health behavior goals, it can help develop countermeasures. Research in this area is ongoing, with various approaches. Strategies can be forward-looking (i.e. developed prior to the promulgation of the objective) or reactive (i.e. used at the time of the decision to promulgate) in their implementation.
To overcome strategic challenges, research has shown effectiveness of developing detailed plans, such as formulating what you will do, how, where and when you will do it, tracking contingencies in case your plan conflicts.
Regular monitoring of your goals is also one of the most effective approaches to keeping behavior on your radar.
With respect to our more automatic tendencies to disrupt health behavior intentions, a focus on the behavioral experience itself is critical. Making the health behavior as enjoyable, practical, and meaningful as possible, and applying it when you have the most energy (to fight temptations), will help. increase the probability of going all the way with good intentions.
However, when you’re faced with a strong urge to ditch your health goal for a more immediately rewarding diversion, that’s when you want take a moment to acknowledge your primitive feelings, but practice your precious intentions.
It’s important to keep in mind that most of the health changes people try to make with these good intentions are lifestyle behaviors. As such, a few slipped days are inconsequential to the overall goal.
There is also theory and evidence that self-regulation strategies like the ones above may become less necessary over time. Indeed, people begin to form habits by repeating these actions, as well as a sense of satisfaction or identity from continued practice that allows them to own the behavior and categorize themselves into the role. So sticking to those short-term intentions will likely make it easier to get on with life.