January is always the busiest time of the year for gyms—you might even call it the fitness version of Black Friday. After a holiday season of eating, drinking, and being merry (often in excess), many gyms see their membership double each January. Regardless of all that enthusiasm, gym attendance is usually back to its normal, pre-New Year level by mid-February.
But you don’t need superpowers or an iron will to commit to being healthier this year. Whether your goal is to do 10 push-ups, run a marathon, or simply take the stairs more often—you can get there! Check out these tips to have your fittest year yet.
1. Write It and Measure It
Resolutions should be both specific and measurable. In fact, a recent study found that setting broad, vague, goals can make people depressed. Reduced specificity of personal goals and explanations for goal attainment in major depression. Dickson JM, Moberly NJ. PloS one, 2013, May.;8(5):1932-6203. Writing down your goals is not only a great way to accomplish them, but your list can also help you figure out the exact steps needed to get there.
"I want to lose weight" is a pretty common New Year’s resolution, but how exactly do you go from point A to point B? Instead, try setting a more specific goal. For instance: "I want to lose 10 pounds over the next six weeks by eliminating fast food meals and going to the gym three to four times per week. I'll then maintain my goal weight for six months before setting any other new goals."
Breaking down the goal’s components (with numeric benchmarks), and keeping a regular checklist will help solidify the task and keep you on track. Make your resolutions follow the SMART model: specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound.
2. Make Resolutions Manageable
A resolution shouldn’t be a fantasy. If you’ve never lifted weights before, attempting to hit the weight bench seven days per week is probably setting yourself up for disappointment. For most people, upending a lifetime of habits can’t happen overnight—even if that night is December 31. The reason is partly physiological; the brain just likes comfortable old habits over new, different ones. Overcoming status quo bias in the human brain. Fleming SM, Thomas CL, Dolan RJ. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2010, Mar.;107(13):1091-6490.
The key to sustainable resolutions is to make small changes gradually. So if your goal is to go from never running to finishing a half-marathon, start training gradually. Begin by walking a few miles twice a week, and steadily increase the workload to jogging, and then running over several months.
3. Break Up the Goal
Resolving to do 10,000 push-ups in a year is pretty intimidating. But 192 push-ups every week… OK, that’s still pretty scary. But breaking it down to 28 per day looks a lot more manageable, right? A goal that’s either far in the future or far out of your comfort zone can be tough to start, so break the resolution down into achievable steps.
Better yet, give yourself several small resolutions throughout the year. For instance, instead of aiming to add 80 pounds to your bench press in a year, aim to add just over six pounds per month. Easier, right?
4. Treat Yo'Self!
Choose a reward that won’t undo your hard work: a weekend getaway, a beach day, a mani-pedi, a massage (they're good for you), some new fitness swag, or a movie date. Regular treats divided by goal (or really, divided by anything) can help you reach those milestones faster than you previously thought possible.
5. Question Your Motives
A steady gym habit can result in six-pack abs, but superficial goals may lose their appeal after endless weeks of diet and exercise. Instead, try framing fitness as a direct path to health and happiness. Regular exercise has unexpected benefits including lowering cholesterol, boosting overall energy, and even increasing happiness. Bringing some deeper intentions to your workout can make all the difference in sticking to your goals.
Before hitting the gym, ask yourself some introspective questions: Why did you make this resolution? What do you want to achieve? Developing answers that elicit a powerful emotional response can help motivate your goals.
6. Ask for Help
Not knowing how to do a certain exercise is no excuse to write it off completely. If you’re curious about new techniques, or find some exercises that are too intimidating (looking at you, deadlifts!) book a session with a personal trainer to clear up confusion, help prevent injury, and learn to love new moves. Trainers and instructors are there to help, so don’t be self-conscious about asking for advice.
Another idea: If you already have a class you love, don't be afraid to stick around for a few minutes and ask the instructor about some of the moves you did.
7. Keep a Schedule
Time management is important for accomplishing any goal, and fitness is no exception. Early morning exercise is a great way to fit a workout into a busy day, and it may encourage healthier eating and more movement throughout the day. Neural response to pictures of food after exercise in normal-weight and obese women. Hanlon B, Larson MJ, Bailey BW. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2013, Feb.;44(10):1530-0315.
But if waking up early is your idea of cruel and unusual torture, then sweating at 6 a.m. is probably not a sustainable system. Make your fitness routine work for you: Pick a time of day when you have energy, schedule a workout, rinse, and repeat.
8. Keep It Interesting
If your resolution is to exercise consistently three or four times per week, it’s time to think beyond the treadmill and the weight rack. Even for experienced gym rats, sticking to one or two types of exercise can get a little mind-numbing. Experiment with yoga, rock climbing, martial arts, team sports, kettlebells, and everything between. The more variety in your exercise program, the more fun it will be to follow, and the more likely you’ll find something you absolutely love.
The best way to test-drive a new form of exercise is to take a group class or book a session with a personal trainer—think of the extra cost as an investment in your health.
9. Hold Yourself Accountable
Stay on track by putting your money where your mouth is: Pay in advance for an exercise program that demands attendance. If working out with a trainer or group class isn’t your style, pencil in regular gym dates with friends or your partner to stay accountable. Knowing that someone’s waiting for you at the gym can prevent skipping workouts (or sleeping through them), and it’s a lot more fun than going it alone. Initiation and maintenance of exercise behavior in older women: predictors from the social learning model. Litt MD, Kleppinger A, Judge JO. Journal of behavioral medicine, 2002, Jul.;25(1):0160-7715. Plus, according to some studies, sweating with a buddy improves results—even if it’s a virtual friend on a video game.
10. Choose the Right Tech
There are scores of gadgets and apps that can help motivate would be gym-goers, but the most useful might be those that connect the user with a community of health-oriented peers. After all, it’s easier to stay on the right path with a supportive community cheering you on. MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, and Noom are great places to start tracking progress and setting new goals, and the apps are well known for their online communities.
Looking for a simpler approach? Try Commit, a super simple app that asks the user, every day, if they’ve achieved a goal they've set. The app features a progress bar that tracks how many days you’ve committed to your goal in a row.
11. Think Outside the Box
Exercise doesn’t have to be a formal activity. If your New Year’s resolution is to simply be more active and burn more calories every day, there are plenty of creative (and free) ways to achieve that goal. You can fit extra movement into the day by walking during phone conversations or even volunteering for household chores. Even something as simple as drinking water throughout the day will ensure regular trips to the faucet and the bathroom.
Pick up a pedometer, grab an activity tracker, or download an app to keep track of how many steps you take, then try to beat your own record. Every minute you’re not sitting or lying down is a step toward better overall fitness. Moderate to vigorous physical activity and weight outcomes: does every minute count? Fan JX, Brown BB, Hanson H. American journal of health promotion : AJHP, 2013, Mar.;28(1):0890-1171.
12. Reevaluate Resolutions Often
How many people resolve to finish a marathon, only to realize they kind of hate distance running? Or decide to take up yoga and realize they want something faster-paced? A lot of things seem fun from a distance (ahem, barre class, anyone?), but might not be a good fit in reality. If this happens to you, it’s time to switch gears and pick a different resolution.
13. Buy Some Cool Gear
If you’re serious about fitness, consider investing in a pair of kickass walking shoes, a few tech-fabric shirts, some rock climbing gloves, a swimsuit, a cool yoga mat… whatever will get you excited about exercise. Something as simple as new workout clothes can improve confidence and help you get to the gym. After all, nobody wants to spend 50 dollars on a shirt that never gets worn, right?
14. Don't Be Afraid to Scale Back
You don’t need to be doubled over in pain, sweating out of your eyeballs, or dry heaving into the trash to have a "good" workout. Some people love intense workouts, but for others, ramping up the pain just means they’ll dread exercising—and nothing derails a fitness resolution like learning to hate exercise. A challenging workout should push you a bit outside your comfort zone, but there’s no need to catapult yourself a thousand miles from it.
15. Be Forgiving
Even the best-laid resolutions can lose steam by spring. Once the excitement of a new regimen has worn off—or your results plateau—it’s easy to justify taking a few days (or weeks) off. For some people, going on lengthy breaks can easily lead to an "Ah, screw it!" mentality and a cancelled gym membership.
But slip-ups are completely fine (even expected), and there’s not a single person on Earth who hasn’t stumbled in their path to success. If taking time off means slightly tweaking your resolution, then so be it—but don’t give up.
Originally published January 2014. Updated January 2016.