Ringing In a Healthier New You

Change was the campaign theme of Barack Obama's successful presidential bid in 2008 and it might be the mantra for your health behaviors as 2009 rolls in. But, unlike Obama, many Americans will not succeed in achieving the often unrealistic goals that accompany a New Year's resolution.

So should we be lowering our expectations?

The first day of the new year represents a natural transition point in life that presents an opportunity to look back on the past year and look forward, said Mark Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

People make New Year's resolutions to give themselves a sense of focus and a hopeful vision that's different and better than the way they perceive themselves now, he said. But where they run into trouble is when they set the bar for their resolutions too high to be attainable.

If you want a better shot at making resolutions stick, set modest, reasonable goals to begin with. In addition, have a plan in mind for how you will accomplish them, and anticipate obstacles along the way, such as bad weather and scheduling conflicts, and determine in advance how to handle them. "A goal without a strategy is unattainable," Reinecke said.

Be sure you have social support in place to encourage a new behavior, so you're not attempting difficult lifestyle changes on your own and will remain accountable for your actions.

"Look for ways to make simple changes in your life that make healthier choices easier to pursue," Reinecke said.

To give you a head start, here are some tips from the experts in four common categories for resolutions: weight loss, exercise, smoking cessation and better diet.

Getting or Staying in Shape

Many a couch potato or on-again, off-again exerciser resolves to be more physically active at the start of a new year. And they're gung-ho and motivated at first, only to wind up with sore, aching muscles after a workout or two. They try to jump back into their fitness program where they last left off, rather than starting off slowly and easing back into it.

"People haven't gotten away from the 'no pain, no gain' mentality," said David Williams, a staff psychologist at Miriam Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Another reason people might set the fitness bar too high is that they are so crunched for time during the day that if they're going to exercise, they want to do something intense to "make it count," Williams said.

Often, he said, this causes people to end up dreading their workout: "They feel good to be done with it, not to be doing it."

Instead of dreading the experience, Williams recommended that you find a mode, intensity and setting so you're not averse to exercise.

For a person who has been a couch potato or somewhat sedentary (which is the category into which 60 percent of Americans fall), find a starting point for exercise that's doable -- even if it's a five-minute walk on your lunch hour, three times a week. Start small, do it regularly, and build from there.

Instead of feeling like you need to walk at a particular pace, just get out there and put one foot in front of the other. In other words, do something active rather than nothing at all. Focus less on the intensity of the effort, when you're just starting out or getting back in shape again.

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