Most veterans of the New Year’s resolution, the annual ritual of promise and aspiration, know that the resolve often fades as soon as the holiday decorations are stored.

There’s a reason, after all, that regular gymgoers tend to stay away for the first few weeks of January, knowing that the crowds will be back to more or less their regular size by the end of the month.

“Old habits are very difficult to change, and new habits are very difficult to form,” Dr. Tim McManus, a neuropsychologist with UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial. “From a neurobehavioral perspective, we’re trying to move ourselves from a point of comfort, which our old habits represent, to a point of discomfort, which any change can bring about. What we’re likely inclined to do under the least bit of stress, then, is to retreat to the point of comfort and ease and familiarity. So with New Year’s resolutions, we’re essentially trying to reprogram a certain set of behaviors, and that’s really difficult to do.”

Indeed, while health- and fitness-related goals—losing weight, eating better, running a race—tend to be the most popular New Year’s resolutions, they also seem among the most difficult to maintain, as the initial enthusiasm of a clean slate gives way to the hard work and complicated schedules of life. So when results don’t come as quickly as expected—or at all—the immediate inclination is to throw in the towel.

“Committing to improving your health is just that—a commitment,” says Leah Okner, wellness manager at Franciscan Health Fitness Centers in Schererville. “It’s not something that happens overnight; it is a journey that is influenced by your day-to-day choices, and it is something that you have to work at all year-round.”

To formulate and follow through on a solid, long-lasting and ultimately successful resolution, most trainers and experts agree there are a handful of things to keep in mind:

Set a realistic goal

Is your resolution achievable, and if so what are the keys to getting there? Does the goal need to be broken down into smaller parts? How much effort is going to be required to successfully complete the resolution?

“People often make resolutions that are far too ambitious and unattainable in the time frame they feel is reasonable, resulting in them giving up,” explains Cathy Trebs, a personal trainer at Community Hospital Fitness Pointe in Munster. “You can increase the success rate with resolutions that have a clear plan to reach that goal.”

Structure activities to support the goal

Life happens, and pretending it doesn’t when setting a resolution is a surefire recipe for failure. For example, if part of your goal is to workout on a regular basis, maybe shooting for working out three times a week is more reasonable than five. Because if three times a week is something you can do most of the time, you're not going to get discouraged.

“Just as it’s important to be realistic about the goal, it’s also important to be realistic about how you plan to accomplish that goal,” says McManus.

Don’t make excuses

It’s easy to slip into a mindset of taking days off when obstacles arise or muscles are sore or you have a few good days in a row. Without going full drill-sergeant on oneself, it’s time for self-discipline to win out over mood when these temptations arise.

“Consistency and adherence are the keys to a successful fitness program,” says Bonnie Kleinfelder, another personal trainer at Fitness Pointe. “Set realistic goals and re-evaluate them every month. Often, meeting a short-term goal is the best incentive to continue working on one’s fitness and health.”

Enlist the help of others

Let other people know about your resolution to garner their support (or even their competition), which might be just the thing that helps you push through the tough times.

“Hire a trainer, find a workout partner or join a group fitness class and tell friends and family your goals and ask them for encouragement,” says Tracy Oedzes, a colleague of Trebs and Kleinfelder at Fitness Pointe.

Visualize success

What will the successful outcome of your resolution look like? McManus believes that having a clear vision of your success at the outset is almost as important as the work to get there.

“Visualization activates the same brain pathways as the actual act itself,” he says.

Reward yourself

Mark the milestones along your journey to remain engaged and inspired to keep going.

“Track your progress and set up rewards along the way, such as treating yourself to a massage after the first five pounds (lost) or a (manicure/pedicure) after 10 pounds, and continuing until you’ve met all of the goals of your resolution,” says Oedzes.

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