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Fitness: Losing resolution? Here's how to keep up

Alvin Chia on 15 Jan 2017

The Straits Times


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Sport psychologists say realistic targets and peer support vital in keeping new year goals


We have reached the second to third week of January and so, according to some experts, many of us would have, or are about to, throw our New Year's resolutions out the window.


According to a 2002 study by John Norcross, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, a private Catholic and Jesuit research university in Pennsylvania in the United States, 29 per cent of 159 people surveyed who had made a New Year's resolution had abandoned it within two weeks.


With plans to lose weight, get fit and eat healthier high up on many people's list of resolutions, this also means that gyms, fitness classes and salad bars that had enjoyed an initial surge in the first fortnight will start seeing dips.


The Sunday Times spoke to sport psychologists Jay-Lee Nair and Edgar Tham to seek advice on how we can make our 2017 fitness resolutions stick.


Dr Nair, 33, is a sport and performance psychologist with Mental Notes Consulting at the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre.


She used to work as a sport psychologist for the Singapore Sports School from 2011 to 2013.


Dr Tham, 50, is the chief sport and performance psychologist at SportPsych Consulting and was the founding head of the sport psychology unit at the Singapore Sports Council (now called Sport Singapore) in 1996.


He was also the founding head of the School of Sports, Health and Leisure at Republic Polytechnic.


The pitfalls

One of the biggest mistakes in making resolutions is that people often adopt an all-or-nothing approach, says Dr Nair.


"This approach to habit change can only succeed for a few days or at most a few weeks before you will deviate from your plan, and when you do, it is viewed as total failure - causing you to feel dejected and give up very quickly," she added.


Setting too many goals, not setting specific goals and not adjusting one's goals along the way also sets one up for failure.


Dr Tham said: "I have seen some clients who are overly enthusiastic and set way too many and unrealistic goals both at the same time."


People also need to be realistic about the time they need to transform themselves.


Dr Nair said it is a myth that habits can be created or changed in just three weeks.


"It actually takes around two months to alter simple behaviours and eight months of consistent effort to change complex behaviours such as diet and exercise."


The principles


Breaking a long-term goal down into several short-term ones is an effective way to sustain one's fitness goals.


Dr Tham gave this example: "Running a marathon at the end of the year is a long-term goal, while clocking a certain distance this week is considered a short-term goal."



Dr Nair also suggested that the first rule of making a New Year's resolution is to "set a long-term goal, but connect with a daily focus on how your new habits or plans make your days better or make you feel".


"When I hear people say their New Year's resolution is 'to be healthier' or 'lose 10kg', I see this as a red flag," she said.


"We have been educated in our culture to think of exercise and diet plans as a way to be healthy... But in reality, this type of reasoning is too abstract and too distant (too far in the future) from what drives our choice to engage in exercise or healthy eating habits on a daily basis... It's hard to connect with this type of goal each and every day."


The trick then, is instant gratification. Dr Nair said: "We need to feel rewarded for doing things that aren't always easy, so we have to connect with immediate rewards."


And the best type of immediate reward, "is the 'feeling' that pursuing these new habits gives us - such as higher energy, better mood, more focus or productivity at work".



Doing what you enjoy will make it easier to stick to one's fitness goals. Dr Tham noted: "It's easy to lose motivation when you are doing things you don't like or enjoy."


And there are many ways to become fitter, other than taking the usual route of lacing up a pair of running shoes or hitting the gym.


Dr Nair added: "Be aware of the kind of experiences you like. If you... prefer playing sports instead of going to the gym, then make this a part of your strategy."


Dr Tham noted: "Think back to past sports or exercises you've done in the past which you'd like to consider getting back into. Another way is to try a variety of different activities or exercises, and find one that you really like."



Enlisting like-minded people to work out with will help sustain one's effort for the long run.


Dr Tham said: "Studies show that social support is important for sustaining one's motivation. So for example, find some family members, friends or colleagues who can join you in a regular fitness regimen.


"Another way is to work with a personal trainer to support you in your fitness quest."



It is natural to fall off the bandwagon. What is important is to get back on it.


This can be done, explained Dr Nair, by "setting rules that guide our approach and ability to adapt when we meet roadblocks".


Such rules, for example, can include telling oneself that, "one day of poor eating choices does not mean total failure" or "if I get off track, I will try again on my very next meal or my very next workout, and not wait for Monday to come back around before re-setting (my goals)".


"These rules," said Dr Nair, "will become your guiding attitude for how you will approach your plan and respond to setbacks in positive, adaptive ways."



    1. Paying attention is always the first step when you want to change a habit. When you start a New Year's resolution, first notice when you do the things you no longer want to do. This helps you to catch your roadblocks and eventually set plans for overcoming them.

    2. When it comes to resolutions, bigger is not better, smaller is smarter. Set small weekly or daily "action-based" goals.

    3. Concentrate on one behaviour change at a time.

    4. Be aware of the kind of experiences you like. If you plan to exercise more in the new year and prefer playing sports instead of going to the gym, then make this part of your strategy.

    5. Always allow yourself room for error.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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