(This article previously appeared on MarketWatch.com.)
They say the best exercise program is any one that you can stick with. By that logic, the best New Year’s resolution is the one you can keep, not the overly ambitious one that leaves you feeling guilty just early into January.
Since simple goals are often the most sustainable, they can wind up being more effective than resolutions that look great on paper but end up shelved before they can do any good.
And while Millennials have the time — and the metabolism — to weather a failed resolution or two, the stakes rise as we approach retirement when it comes to our health and finances.
If your resolutions are already testing your resolve, here are three simpler approaches to staying on track with your goals:
1. Move More, Track Less
Instead of obsessing about the numbers on your fitness tracker, focus on moving every day.
Wearable technology has enabled us to track all manner of health measures, from the duration of our REM sleep to the number of calories we’ve burned. For many, these devices form the basis of New Year’s resolutions. (“I’m going to walk 10,000 steps every day!”)
Some people find lasting motivation in the data deluge, but many don’t. A third of consumers who have owned a wearable activity tracker stopped using it within six months of receiving it, according to research by Endeavour Partners, a Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm.
What’s more, those who use fitness trackers sometimes misinterpret their results, said Dr. Albert Wu, a practicing physician and the director of the Center for Health Services and Outcomes Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
For example, people will see that they burned 400 calories exercising and think they’ve earned a 400-calorie slice of cake. Yet since most of us consume too many calories on a daily basis, we shouldn’t be rewarding exercise with additional indulgence. “We need a lot less food to keep us going than we think,” Wu said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity exercise (e.g., brisk walking) a week. There are a lot of ways to move that don’t cost money or involve fancy equipment. For winter indoor exercise, YouTube has all manner of fitness videos, from old Jane Fonda favorites to the latest Zumba routine. Those who prefer a more social activity can walk the local mall with a friend.
The CDC also recommends doing muscle-strengthening activities two or more days a week. But this doesn’t have to involve weights. Non-modified push-ups — that is, those done from your hands and feet and not hands and knees — work out many of the major muscle groups. Those who can’t do a push-up can start by holding themselves in push-up position and gradually working up the strength to dip down.
Experts also recommend some balance training to help prevent falls. That could be as simple as standing on alternating feet while waiting in line at the grocery store.
2. Have a Real Social Life
Research has proved what many of us already know — that looking at people’s highly curated lives on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram can leave us feeling somewhat diminished. We might’ve been happy with our holiday in Myrtle Beach until we found out that a friend had vacationed in the Maldives.
Research has shown that neglecting that basic human need for social connection could have serious health consequences.
While some may resolve to up their social media game in the New Year, keeping up with the virtual Joneses comes at a cost. A 2013 study published in the journal PLOS One found that Facebook use predicts negative shifts in how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives. Researchers controlled for participants’ initial mood and found that increased interaction with Facebook during a given time period lead them to feel worse later on that same day and that increased Facebook interaction over two weeks led to a decline in life satisfaction. (Participants in the survey were young adults; researchers flagged for future research the question of whether the findings applied to other age groups.)
“On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection,” researchers from the University of Michigan wrote. “Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”
Separate research has shown that neglecting that basic human need for social connection could have serious health consequences. Studies suggest that feeling extreme loneliness can increase an older person’s chances of premature death and that social isolation can be as harmful to one’s physical health as cigarettes and drinking.
Take a look around your neighborhood to see who might need some companionship. If you live in a cold climate, knock on an elderly person’s door and offer to shovel her snow — that’s great exercise for you, and help and a social connection for her.
3. Get to Know Your Kitchen
Instead of swearing off restaurants altogether, eat at home one more day a week.
In a survey of more than 1,120 American workers released by the Principal Financial Group, two out of three respondents reported blowing their annual budget. The biggest culprit? Dining out.
A regular restaurant habit hurts the waistline as well as the wallet. A study of more than 12,500 people published by Public Health Nutrition shows that on days when people eat out, they consume an average of 200 calories more than those who eat at home.
“I think it’s safe to say that restaurant meals have more of everything,” including sugar, fat and salt, said Kristin Kirkpatrick, manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. For that reason, those who vow to lose weight in the New Year will have a much harder time accomplishing that goal if they eat out a lot, Kirkpatrick said.
For a manageable New Year’s resolution, try eating in for an additional day each week. That could mean forgoing a restaurant dinner or bringing a brown-bag lunch to work. Sock away the savings in your retirement account: Saving just $10 a week on lunch adds up to an extra $520 for the year in your IRA or 401(k).
TV cooking shows and social media sites have so fetishized food preparation that many would-be home cooks don’t feel up to the task. We have to remind ourselves that we’re not contestants on Top Chef and we don’t have to make elaborate, time-consuming meals, Kirkpatrick said.
Her go-to dinner some nights of the week is homemade hummus and vegetables. She also freezes brown rice and chops vegetables over the weekend, so she can add a protein and make a quick stir-fry during the week.
When you do dine out, make a reservation so you can be seated right away and not spend time waiting around. Waiting often means ordering drinks and getting hungry enough that you’ll over-order when you finally sit down, Kirkpatrick said.
When dining in a group, choose a healthy option — and order first, so you’re not swayed by the choices of your companions, Kirkpatrick added.
Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:
- New Year’s Resolutions From the Wisest Americans
- 10 Top Wellness Apps to Meet Your Health Goals
- What to Know About Health By 50, 60, 70
- Choosing Healthy Restaurant Meals
Next Avenue brings you stories that are inspiring and change lives. We know that because we hear it from our readers every single day. One reader says,
"Every time I read a post, I feel like I'm able to take a single, clear lesson away from it, which is why I think it's so great."
Your generous donation will help us continue to bring you the information you care about. What story will you help make possible?
This article is reprinted with permission from MarketWatch.com. © 2015 Dow, Jones & Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.