Jan. 4, 2011 -- Nothing gets you thinking about health quite like a month of excess. As the holiday haze clears, New Year's resolutions come into focus. But for many, January's motivation dwindles by March – if not sooner.
Because the start of a new year is a great time to think about breaking bad habits and starting fresh, ABCNews.com asked health experts to share some healthy resolutions and tips on how to see them through.
Many of us start the year with ambitious plans to shed the holiday pounds and then some. But without signs of success in the first few weeks, motivation can fizzle.
The key to losing weight, and not January's enthusiasm, is to set realistic short-term goals, according to Lisa Cimperman, a registered dietician at University Hospitals Case Medical Center.
"There's a lot that goes on between losing that first pound and losing that 100, 50 or even 20 pounds," Cimperman said. Aiming to lose 1-to-2 pounds per week can help you stay on track and power through the inevitable weight loss lulls.
But don't let the numbers on the scale be the be-all end-all, Cimperman warns. Strength training can boost muscle mass, masking successful fat loss. Measuring your waist and thighs over time and paying attention to how your clothes fit can help you track how your body's changing.
And if you do get stuck in a rut, don't be afraid to ask for some help.
"Studies have shown that support groups or just having someone else encouraging you will help make you successful," Cimperman said.
When it comes to food, we all have a weakness – if not several. Whether it's skipping breakfast or snacking at work, bad eating habits are tough to break. But after recognizing your diet pitfalls, a bit of planning can help you tackle them.
Bringing a lunch to work every day is a great resolution, Cimperman said. Not only can it save you money, but it will force you to eat healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, that you might not eat given the choice.
"If I'm bringing my lunch, that's all I have to eat. And quite honestly, I'm pretty hungry by the time noon rolls around and that salad or apple or grapefruit tastes pretty good," Cimperman said.
Out of 100 people who make the resolution to quit smoking, only three will succeed. But with help that number can increase to 25, according to Dr. Frank Leone, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program.
"Generally people who get help, either in the form of counseling or nicotine replacement, preferably both, actually improve their odds of stopping smoking successfully, long-term, pretty dramatically," Leone said.
The support of family and friends who understand what you're going through is important, but talking to a professional or someone who has quit for good can tilt the balance in favor of success.
"The easiest way to get some professional advice on how to quit is to call the national quit line at 1-800-QUIT NOW," Leone said.
Support groups run by neighborhoods or medical facilities are also a great source for support and inspiration.
"An important part of dealing with this is really getting advice on how to deal with some of the issues that pop up, and there's no better advice than the collective experience of people who have gone through this process over many, many years."
Digging up the motivation to exercise can be hard in the winter months. Shorter days and cooler temperatures (not to mention sidewalks full of snow) make it hard to get out for a run. Buying a gym membership can give you the financial incentive and the indoor space to work out, but it only works if you use it.
"A lot of people have gym memberships that they don't use, including myself," Cimperman said. "My goal is to go to the gym twice a week, and that doesn't sound like a lot, but it's a realistic goal that I know I can meet," Cimperman said.
But you don't need a gym membership to get in shape, Cimperman stressed. Running up and down the stairs in your house or apartment building or at work is a great workout. And workout DVDs, even YouTube videos, can also offer some fitness solutions on the cheap.
Walking to work or choosing the stairs over the elevator can help you burn a few extra calories each day. But to get the real health benefits of exercise, your heart rate needs a hike, according to Dr. Shukri David, Chief of Cardiology at Providence Hospital in Southfield, Michigan.
"You ideally want to increase your heart rate to 85 percent of what we call target, which is 220 minus your age," David said. That's 160 for a 40-year-old. And sustaining that increased heart rate for 15-30 minutes each day will benefit your whole body.
Take Preventive Measures
Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the U.S. So it's important to know your risk factors and your numbers, Providence Hospital's David said.
Genetics play an important part in determining your risk, so knowing your family history is an important first step. But other modifiable factors, such as smoking, being overweight, and having diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol also increase your risk.
"You can't choose your parents, but you can certainly get your blood pressure down, you can get your blood sugar down with diabetes, you can normalize your cholesterol levels, you can stop smoking, and you can lose weight," David said.
Seeing a doctor at least once a year for a preventative physical exam can help you stay on top of your numbers, David said. And many of the medications that help keep those numbers in check, such as cholesterol-lowering statins, are inexpensive.
Although heart disease is the leading killer in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer is a close second. Regular screening for breast, prostate and colorectal cancer can help spot problems early on, often improving a treatment's success, David said.