I have a fit friend whose daily practice of swimming laps at the local pool never wavers. Just two days into the New Year, he sits lamenting the post-New Year's Day crowds that will descend upon the gym and its facilities like a hurricane of good intentions.
"The first six weeks of the new year are predictably terrible like that," he gripes. "And then, just like that, they all disappear. Poof." He waves an invisible magic wand.
Anyone who has undergone a drastic lifestyle makeover for the supposed sake of his or her health can probably tell you of the havoc it can wreak on mental well-being. This is especially true if you happen to be a worrier, a control freak, or a prognosticator of doom and gloom — or so I've heard, anyway. Ahem!
It's hard to outsmart the mechanisms of the body, a machine that operates independently of the strongest will. Recently, after an unexpected hiccup in some routine blood work, I resolved to start an eight-week detoxification regimen, giving up everything from animal fats to ibuprofen, and replacing my omnivorous diet with a limited menu of salads and juices. The point of my little recovery and regeneration project was to give certain vital organs a holiday so that my body could use the energy freed by them to do its own healing. The ultimate challenge was to be able actually to utter phrases like that without choking on them.
On New Year's Eve, I browsed the online resolutions of bloggers and friends with voyeuristic detachment, before discovering and subsequently struggling through "52 Week-by-Week Resolutions" on Oprah.com. These included all kinds of completely useless, albeit enviably luxurious, items of advice like, "Invest in a bag of impressive marshmallows" and "Make friends with salad". Maybe I was losing my sense of humour.
Resolutions often mark the start of a new chapter, but they can also just represent a new way of addressing an old pattern, and they don't have to be a lifetime commitment, so don't let that excuse get in the way. Although I got better, one day at a time, I have heard it said a number of different ways that good health — like money and friends — is the sort of thing you don't notice you have until it is no longer there.
My known allergies are to oysters, penicillin and sanctimony. But if there's one thing I know to be true about challenges, it's that the truly unexpected ones need to be met in truly unexpected ways. For me, that means that sleepytime is over and that I've tapped certain reservoirs that no longer have anything to give me.
Once you get over the hump of feeling lousy about them, health challenges are a great opportunity to examine the implications and patterns of your consumption on every level — and to try to recalibrate it in ways that are more sustainable, provided you want to stick around.
There's no reason why these opportunities cannot bring us pleasure, as well. It's even easier to derive pleasure from something whose benefits are easy to perceive. I'm a known degenerate when it comes to water consumption, but if I can remember to cut caffeine and drink huge amounts of herbal tea, I'm a happier person. Why I still need to remind myself of this on a daily basis after a lifelong issue with it is just another sign of how far common sense lags behind the heels of my impulses. I also drink way too much caffeine, and I hate exercise.
Statistically, nearly half of us made resolutions we were serious about at the start of the new year. It's natural for motivation to come and go, but commitments don't happen by accident. Some of the most successful strategies for sticking to resolutions include documenting them, sharing them and declaring them. Research shows that people who take the time to think about specific resolutions - and then make them official - are 10 times more likely to reach their goals than those who are more attracted to change.
As Dolly Parton famously said, "Find out who you are and do it on purpose." An occasional problem people have with keeping resolutions is being unrealistic about them to begin with.
Not all lifestyle changes need to be permanent, but they do need to be manageable. I remember being five or six years old - perhaps you have similar memories - when parents and teachers would tell me I could be anything when I grew up. Mostly, I remember feeling distressed and overwhelmed by the magnitude of that ridiculous notion.
So there was a sense of liberation for me a couple of years later, when I heard opera for the first time and when I saw my first ballet, because I thought to myself: "That ship has sailed." That would never be me. It was the destiny of others to be great at those things. If I were lucky, I thought, it would be my destiny to witness and enjoy it. But this realisation allowed me to redirect my attention to what I naturally was rather than what I naturally was not.
A far more common downfall of resolutions is our tendency to yield to short-lived pleasure over long-term rewards — and it's a problem that, for many of us, extends to more than one area of life.
In "Man vs Food" (Outside magazine, January 2010), John Bradley wrote of his radical but strategic year-long commitment to using his own body to demystify half a dozen diets known for either their clinical or their cultural popularity. Bradley spent eight weeks each on six different dietary plans, including the Paleo diet for athletes, the Mediterranean prescription and the USDA's nutritional pyramid, while documenting everything that passed his lips for the entire year, how it made him feel and what his doctor, his scale and his lab tests had to say about it. In the brilliant conclusion to his summarised journals, he wrote, "A last bit of advice: Once you've settled on a nutritional approach, cheat … Knowing you can do this will make it easier to eat well the rest of the time."
Physical fitness is influenced by a number of different factors. Some we can control; some we cannot. At some point, I resolved to start treating myself like a worthy investment. And by "at some point", I mean yesterday. My New Year resolutions? To make more new mistakes and fewer old ones because that will mean that I am learning. And to get over my fear of committing to resolutions.