As the new year dawns, strange things will happen in homes across Southern California. Sweatpants and tennis shoes will suddenly materialize, long-forgotten gym membership cards will appear out of nowhere and cartons of eggnog will mysteriously disappear. With motivation so strong it could power a jet, thousands of people will embark on exercise regimens with the admirable intent of getting in shape and dropping some weight. According to a recent poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 39% of the population will make New Year's resolutions this year, with many (17%) vowing to lose weight. That's the good news.
Coping with change
The bad news is that the vast majority probably won't keep these pledges past March. Success often remains elusive, experts say, because of a few key matters: a lack of planning, unrealistic goals and the simple fact that human beings aren't keen on change.
"The idea of physical exercise is a change of habit, and it's not welcomed," says Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical psychologist with the anxiety disorders program at UCLA. "It requires effort which, in most cases, we are not too eager to apply. What makes it even more difficult is the investment of hard work."
But the hard work doesn't have to involve a two-hour stint of no-pain-no-gain workouts every day for weeks. That's a self-defeating strategy many people have until the demands of daily life -- family, travel, work -- derail them. Planning an exercise regimen can ensure greater long-term success.
"People spend an inordinate amount of time planning a trip or a wedding, but when it comes to getting in shape, people are unwilling to plan," says Charles Stuart Platkin, author of "Breaking the Pattern: The 5 Principles You Need to Remodel Your Life" (Red Mill Press, 2001).
That resurrects old patterns and habits that didn't work then and won't work now: "If every year you join a gym but you hate going to the gym, then maybe you need to come up with something else that provides you with cardiovascular and strength training."
Platkin, founder of the Nutricise weight-loss program, suggests rediscovering some long-forgotten but favorite sport, such as racquetball or swimming. If socializing is important, get a workout buddy (preferably one with equal zeal), join a team or make friends at the gym.
If just the thought of setting up an exercise routine seems daunting, break it into manageable steps, says Jerald Jellison, a professor of psychology at UCLA. "If you're going to join a gym, bring a checklist of things you want to know, such as the quality of the instructors, the kinds of classes they offer, and when they're open."
Man versus machine
Even fear of not knowing how to use a piece of equipment is enough to keep some out of a health club, says Bess Marcus, director of the Physical Activity Research Centers at Brown Medical School and the Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I. "A lot of YMCAs have classes on how to use the machines," she says, "and that way you're in the same boat with other people."
Setting unachievable goals is one way to almost ensure dropping out of a fitness program. Expecting to run a marathon by spring or dropping 30 pounds in a month is unrealistic for most people. Instead, focus on training for a 5- or 10-kilometer run before tackling anything more. Also, replace amorphous objectives with specific ones. Says Maidenberg, "What is the goal and how will you know when you succeed?"
He suggests tailoring the exercise to the purpose: "If you're very overweight, then do a particular kind of exercise. Focus on what you want to do and why you want to do it."
Sandy Shafer, a personal trainer with the Sports Club/LA, says he's heard clients proclaim, "I'm going to work out for two months and get back to the way I was when I graduated high school."
"Well, they're 42 years old now and sit at a desk all day. Their whole lifestyle is different and it may not be realistic to lose two pounds in two weeks. It may take a month."
Don't expect quick results
Often goals remain unattained because people focus only on their ultimate objective, which doesn't come fast enough. Resolutions are broken during the critical first few weeks of a new exercise program, when the pounds haven't come off, abs haven't gone flat, and getting up early and schlepping to the gym is still an excruciating chore. Small victories are frequently ignored, but they shouldn't be.
"Do you feel like you have more energy or can handle daily hassles better?" says Marcus, coauthor of "Motivating People to Be Physically Active" (Human Kinetics, 2003). "Do your clothes feel a little less tight? Do you just feel less bad? Short-term benefits could be having time for yourself to take a class, dance like you don't really get to, socialize and laugh. The fitness part is almost secondary."