Jump-start your New Year



It’s safe to say many of us are excited about a new year. I know I am. 2020 has been strange and challenging, and while the pandemic will continue to affect us for a while, news of highly effective vaccines offers real hope that we may return to more normal times later in 2021.

Traditionally, this rollover to the New Year is a time when many of us focus on health and wellness goals. While this has been anything but a traditional year – including extended lockdowns, medical scares and job stresses – it’s likely many people will still set goals for 2021. Health has certainly been top of mind the world over.

If you’re considering making a New Year’s resolution, some simple steps can improve your chances of success. It begins with how you choose what to work on.

“Pick one goal to start,” says Liz Salerno, a biobehavioral scientist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “And keep it SMART.”

That’s an acronym for “specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based.” It’s a guide that can help us avoid common pitfalls when choosing a health goal, like making a goal too broad or too hard.

“For example, a SMART goal for getting more exercise could be, ‘I want to increase my number of daily steps from 5,000 to 7,000 by the end of February,’ ” Salerno said. “The goal is specific about the type of exercise, measurable in steps, attainable by being a reasonable increase, relevant to exercise and time-based with an end date.”

You can apply the SMART approach to almost any health goal, whether it’s a new activity or a behavior you want to maintain or build upon. Setting goals also lets us harness unique experiences from the past year and turn them into long-term lifestyle changes. Maybe you’ve gone on more family bike rides during the pandemic; you can set a goal to keep that up three times a week. Or maybe you’ve been cooking at home more and want to eat more plant-based foods; you can set a goal to add one meat-free dinner to your week.

Once you’ve chosen your goal, the next step is to start working toward it. Salerno suggests these tips:

  • Track your progress regularly, and adjust your goal up or down over time. “Recalibrating is necessary and important; it prevents us from getting discouraged,” she said.
  • Recruit a friend so you can enjoy working toward the same goal and hold each other accountable. Just remember physical distance and other safety guidelines.
  • Remind yourself why you chose your goal. For example, to keep up with the grandkids or to lower cancer risk. When things feel tough and you wonder “Why am I doing this?” you’ll have an answer.

On top of its health benefits, setting a new goal and working toward it can be fulfilling, even uplifting. That can help pave the way for a more positive 2021. Yet, even as we work toward our health goals, it’s important not to lose sight that the pandemic can continue to challenge us day-to-day.

“It’s critical that we show ourselves grace if we fall short of our goals during this public health crisis,” Salerno said. “Be patient with yourself and others. We’re all in this together.”

It’s your health – and your New Year. Take control.

(Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.)


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