Designing Goals and Environments that Support Healthy Resolutions


Guest Post from Active Living Research

How have your New Year’s resolutions been going? Like many people, I enjoyed the holiday season with plenty of good food and drink and then felt the urge to redeem myself with healthier habits once January 1 rolled around. But how often have you started a new year by walking a mile everyday or replacing your lunchtime soda with water, only to find yourself reverting back to old habits within a few weeks? In fact, most New Year’s resolutions ultimately fail. Then you inevitably blame yourself for lacking the willpower to stay disciplined. But the problem isn’t necessarily that you’re lazy or lack self-control. The real issue is our environments make it far too easy, cheap, and convenient to eat too much junk food and be sedentary.

Let’s face it. We are creatures of habit, temptations are very hard to resist, and many of us live in communities where it is difficult to walk, bike, or play due to a variety of barriers, such as a lack of sidewalks, a car-dependent environment, or having parks that feel unsafe or are located too far away.

However there is reason to be optimistic about developing sustainable healthy behaviors. The trick is in creating goals and environments with the right elements for success.

There is a science to changing personal habits. A recent article in the New York Times shared four strategies inspired by behavioral psychology on how to make our resolutions stick. The first step is making a concrete plan with specific dates and times for the healthy behavior. Second, put something of value on the line. For example, set up an account in which you would forfeit money to your least favorite charity in the event you do not achieve your goal. Third, make the healthy behavior into something tempting. For example, you can attach a little reward to each time you accomplish your physical activity goal for the week, such as treating yourself to a relaxing bubble bath or planning a fun night out with some friends. Fourth, find a mentor, friend, or other social support to help you. Read the details on these four strategies in the article.

Evidence shows that we can improve the places where we live, work, play, and go to school so that we can be more physically active and eat healthier. There is a growing movement across the country to make it easier and safer for children and adults to walk and bike. For example, the National Safe Routes to School Partnership supports programs and street improvements designed to increase children’s ability to walk or bike to school. And Every Body Walk! is a national campaign to get Americans walking for health and happiness, 30 minutes a day, five days a week. You can contribute to making healthier environments by getting involved in a walking or bicycling advocacy group in your area, or joining America Walks.

As we move into 2014, how will you set yourself, and your environment, up for longer-lasting healthy habits?

About the author:

Debbie Lou, Ph.D., is the Program Analyst with Active Living Research, where she translates and disseminates evidence on how policies and environments can promote physical activity. Debbie has a background in sociology with a focus on social justice issues.