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7 Tips for Meeting Your New Year's Resolutions

By Amelia Dmowska, Ben Pallant, and Lynn Kennedy

Dr. Shreela Sharma’s advice for eating well, moving more, and making goals stick in the new year

With the New Year here, lists of resolutions inevitably follow – it’s usually not difficult to pinpoint what should be changed. The challenge often comes in trying to find the right resolution and then sticking with it.

Some of the most common New Year’s resolutions center around eating and exercise, especially for many people with diabetes, since both have such a direct impact on blood sugar (along with many other factors, as Adam Brown explains in one of the most read diaTribe pieces ever).

Trying to achieve health goals and modify habits is challenging, no question, which is why diaTribe sat down with Dr. Shreela Sharma, an Associate Professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health and co-founder of Brighter Bites, an inspiring organization that works to promote healthy eating in underserved communities in Texas. As an expert in realistic goal setting for better health habits (especially eating), Dr. Sharma generously shared her wisdom on how to overcome some of the biggest barriers to meeting New Year’s health resolutions.

Whatever your goal, here are 7 tips for success in the new year:

  1. Set one (and only one) goal at a time. It can be easy to make a dozen different New Year’s resolutions, only to see goals start to fall through by February. Instead, Dr. Sharma encourages that we all “start with baby steps,” setting one achievable and measurable goal at a time to figure out what works best. She suggests trying to cook one more home-made meal each week, for example, or replacing one snack per day that isn’t altogether healthy with fruit or vegetables (here is valuable health information from the FDA – including carbs – for fruit and for vegetables). After comfortably accomplishing the first goal, then start planning the next step.

  2. The best goals are small adjustments to what is already familiar, not drastic changes. Build health into habits that you already have. Dr. Sharma encouraged us to tweak the familiar rather than go for something completely different when setting our goals.

    For someone whose goal is to eat one more serving of vegetables per day, for example (like our editor Kelly), Dr. Sharma suggests that trying to add vegetables to a favorite recipe could be a good way to go. Many vegetables like cauliflower or spinach can be added pretty easily, she said, without drastically changing the taste!

    If the goal is to eat less sugar (a great idea for virtually all Americans according to Gary Taubes, a nutrition guru and author of “The Case Against Sugar”), Dr. Sharma recommends comparing similar brands for one food item (e.g., yogurt) during each visit to the grocery store. Find the food with less added sugar – or whatever other ingredient you’re looking to minimize or maximize – then stick to that brand. The same small “tweaks” work for physical activity, too. A dog owner hoping to get more exercise may commit to walking the dog two extra blocks each day. For those interested, Dr. BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program is outstanding (and free) for building habits through small tweaks.

  3. Good habits are very transferable. Surround yourself with positive influences in line with your goals. “Engage everyone around you, and help them help you,” Dr. Sharma advises. “Change doesn’t happen in isolation.” It is easier to make a change with an encouraging support system in place, surrounded by people also pursuing the same, or similar, healthy habits. For that reason, it’s a great idea to engage friends, coworkers, partners, relatives, and the entire family – maybe even an online community with people who share the same goals. In the diaTribe office, we have a walking treadmill desk that people can use while they work.

  4. Find creative ways to be active. While it can no doubt be hard to find time during the day to incorporate physical activity, activities can become part of a daily routine – rather than a burden – with the right solution. Dr. Sharma’s solution? “Often, I find that I have to do my physical activity at work.” As a professor, she takes her students on regular “walk-and-talks,” where they have their meetings while also getting exercise. This trick is right in line with the ADA’s recently released recommendations that people with diabetes do at least 3 minutes of light physical activity, like walking, for every 30 minutes spent sitting. That’s going to be a big change for some people, but it’s a big deal that the ADA actually put this recommendation out there.

    Dr. Sharma also suggests strategies like parking a few blocks away from work to increase daily walking or doing small errands on foot as ways to incorporate activity into a normal routine. The Brighter Bites website also has creative exercise suggestions to mix up the day, ranging from dance parties and Frisbee games to active homework breaks and after-dinner walks with family. Many activity trackers like Fitbit and Apple Watch now remind wearers to get up and stand every hour – a good option for tech and device enthusiasts where it is affordable.

  5. Take advantage of technology. There is an ever-increasing number of tools available for tracking health in a smarter and more personal way, especially for people with diabetes. Dr. Sharma encourages using technology to help meet health goals. Whether it’s setting reminders on a phone, having a competition with a coworker (e.g., most steps walked) or catching the most Pokémon, experiment to find ways you can use technology to help meet your goal. In particular, Dr. Sharma references the “Three M’s” for people with diabetes – monitoring, meals, and movement – and points out that technology can be supportive for many people in these areas. Check out this Adam’s Corner on activity tracking for more on Adam’s personal experience with it.

  6. Be patient. Changing something from a resolution into a habit doesn’t happen overnight. These types of changes are a process, but the good news is that with persistence and dedication, health goals can become “part of your fabric.” To stay motivated during this time, try to focus on the immediate benefits of meeting your goal each day or week – whether it is more energy, an increased sense of well-being, or a sense of accomplishment that propels you forward.

  7. Reward yourself. This was great to hear! Have a reward in mind for achieving each goal. Rewards should be both healthy – Dr. Sharma advised against using food as a reward – and tied to something that you genuinely enjoy and care about (perhaps an activity or purchase that motivates you). The trick is making sure the reward comes after the progress has been made and a goal has been met. Work healthy living into what you enjoy.

Dr. Sharma co-founded Brighter Bites with Lisa Helfman in 2012 in Houston, Texas; the program has now expanded to Austin and Dallas as well. Brighter Bites is a school-based program with a multi-faceted, innovative approach to encouraging health amongst students and their families in underserved communities. For a total of twenty-four weeks – eight each in the fall, spring, and summer – participating families receive about thirty pounds per week of fresh fruits and vegetables donated from a local food bank. The produce is bagged and distributed by parents at the schools in a cooperative-style setup. The cooperative allows community building among the parents, and the weekly produce distribution serves as an opportunity for demonstrations on ways to prepare the produce (complete with taste tests for sample recipes). Brighter Bites also distributes health information for parents and children, available in both English and Spanish, and students participate in the CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) healthy living curriculum at school. Brighter Bites has distributed more than 10 million pounds of produce to over 20,000 participating families since its inception in 2012.

If you live in Texas and would like to involve your community in this program, click here to learn more.

[Photo credit: UTHealth]