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Suzanne Koven
Suzanne Koven M.D.

What an Effective New Year's Resolution Looks Like

The curious case of a successful resolution keeper.

I'd like to introduce you to "Bill," a patient of mine who has the distinction of being one of the only people I know who has used New Year's resolutions successfully to transform his health and life. His secret? Bill actually followed the advice that is dispensed this time of year in countless magazines and TV features about what makes certain New Year's resolutions effective tools for changing behavior. More on that advice in a moment...first, Bill's story:
Three years ago, on the eve of 2007 Bill decided to start exercising. He was in his 40s, more than a few pounds overweight, and was feeling the stress of work and raising a family. He knew his diet could use some changing, too, but he figured that focusing on one thing at a time would be less overwhelming than trying to "fix" everything at once. He resolved to go for a walk every other day for 45 minutes and he made a little check mark in his pocket calendar every time he fulfilled this goal. On January 1, 2008 he added running to his walking routine, gradually working up to four miles every other day. At the beginning of 2009 Bill decided to tackle his diet, avoiding processed foods like sweets, chips, and soda on weekdays and allowing himself treats on the weekends. He continued the running program he had started the previous year. Again, he kept a record of his progress in his calendar and found, at the end of this year, that he had not been perfect but that he had kept his dietary resolution about 75% of the time.
In three years Bill has lost fifty pounds and feels better than he did in his twenties.
New Years resolutions have a bad name - the very mention of them causes eyes to roll cynically: yeah, right...who ever keeps them? The truth is, studies show that people who make resolutions are more likely to change behaviors than people who don't. But merely making resolutions doesn't guarantee success. To make better, more helpful resolutions take some cues from Bill:
• Make your resolutions specific and actionable. "Lose weight" and "get in better shape" are vague and unhelpful resolutions. "walk 45 minutes every other day" is a useful resolution.
• Be realistic. "I'll get up every day at 5 and run" or "I'll never eat sweets again" will likely feel more like punishment than a healthy routine. Notice that Bill allowed himself days off and treats.
• Keep track. Even a simple system of check marks on a calendar helps you see the big picture and stay accountable to yourself. Enlisting a buddy with whom to compare notes has also been shown to increase adherence to healthy diet and exercise.
• Aim to be "good enough" - not perfect. Bill achieved his goal by being a "C+" (i.e. 75%) dieter.
So Happy New Year to all...and especially to Bill who is starting 2010 with a resolution to add more fruits, vegetables and whole grains into his diet.

About the Author
Suzanne Koven

Suzanne Koven practices at Massachusetts General Hospital and teaches at Harvard Medical School.