This year began with a COVID diagnosis after spending the days leading up to the holidays bouncing around a few different foot specialists to determine the source of unrelenting pain. Normally, I would have jumped on the “New Year Resolution bandwagon” with a renewed effort to increase my overall fitness. However, being confined to the house with my children spending the week at their father’s, and struggling with fatigue, foot pain and a relentless cough, I had more time than usual to reflect not only on this past year but the last few years. What I realized was that I had not been consistent with my resolutions long term and I decided to explore why.
In Brian King’s article, “How Long Does it Take to Form a New Habit?” he explains that habits are behaviors that our brain has learned to produce without thinking about it because of the reward connected to it. Most people do not initially find going to the gym, feeling sore, and eating fruits, vegetables, low-glycemic carbohydrates, and lean protein to be joyful. Our brain recognizes the pleasure in binge-watching a show while eating sweets or salty snacks more quickly than these healthier habits. Therefore, it is harder to break habits that bring more joy than it is to build healthy habits that can be uncomfortable at first. Conventional wisdom says a new habit takes 21 days to form, but if you are not able to see the positive effects of these healthy habits, where is the reward? How is our brain receiving these new habits?
According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit. The same study also concluded that it takes an average of 66 days for a new habit to become automatic. Like King, Scott Frothingham argues that there are several factors that impact how a new habit is formed and when it becomes automatic in his article “How Long Does It Take for a New Behavior to Become Automatic?” These factors include what the habit is, the effect of dopamine or how much is released in conjunction with the new habit, and the ability to replace a bad habit with a better one.
My takeaway from this information was that I needed to maintain my fitness and nutrition habits from January to at least March 7th – yet these are the coldest, darkest days of the year with fewer in-season produce options. The weather is inconsistent and what I want most is a hot cup of tea, a fire blazing, a blanket on, and a good book, TV show, or movie. In looking at the last few years, I noticed my best months in terms of overall fitness were late April through early November when the weather is more conducive to being outside and fresh, and in-season produce is bountiful. Some may contend that I need more discipline in my life, but I would argue that maybe, I, like so many others, need more grace in my life. Digging deeper, I realized that I often chastise myself for not hitting those New Year’s goals of doing intense cardio and strength training in addition to “cleaning up my diet” after the holiday sweets. Even though conventional health and fitness wisdom indicates those workouts are ideal, maybe what I needed was to simply enjoy the journey of being consistent in my efforts during the dark and dreary months when my motivation wanes. So rather than set another unrealistic resolution for the New Year, I’ve decided to focus on two words: simplicity and consistency.
What was your New Year’s resolution? Has it stuck so far? If not, how could you adjust your resolution to be more successful? Would a word or two to define and set the tone for your year work better? Or maybe at the end of each month in 2023, it’s about celebrating your accomplishments – big and small – that will propel you into your next month of success. Just like there is no one ideal diet, workout, or magic pill to create an ideal physique, there is no ideal way to create a resolution for the New Year. I encourage each of you to be courageous in reflecting on what your body needs, what your lifestyle is conducive to, and what brings you joy. It is progress over perfection; reflection and resiliency over quitting; and adaption over rigidity.
Written by Kelly Reising who is passionate about nutrition, fitness, and health.
Dr. Mc Millan is a Board-Certified orthopedic sports medicine surgeon practicing in the Virtua Health System of south Jersey. For more information please visit www.drseanmcmillan.com or follow us on Twitter @sportsdrsean.