Getty ImagesBy Alyssa Sparacino
New Year's resolutions are a bit like babies: They're fun to make but extremely difficult to maintain.
Each January, roughly one in three Americans resolve to better themselves or their situation in some way, according to a 2009 poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. A much smaller percentage of people actually make good on those resolutions, however. While roughly 75% of people stick to their goals for at least a week, less than half (46%) are still on target six months later, a 2002 study found.
Yes, it's hard to keep that shiny New Year's enthusiasm months after you've swept up the confetti, but it's not impossible. Especially if your goal is a noble one: better health. Exercising more, dropping a few pounds, and other health-related resolutions have traditionally been favorites, and 2011 will likely be no different.
This year, pick one of the following worthy resolutions, and stick with it. Here's to your health!
The fact that weight loss is perennially among the most popular resolutions suggests just how difficult it is to stick with. But you can succeed if you don't expect overnight success. "You want results yesterday, and desperation mode kicks in," says Pam Peeke, MD, author of Body for Life for Women. "Beware of the valley of quickie cures."
Also, plan for bumps in the road. Use a food journal to keep track of what you eat and have a support system in place. "Around week four to six something happens, and people become excuse mills," Dr. Peeke says. "That's why it's important to have someone there on a regular basis to get you through those rough times."
Health.com: 25 diet-busting foods you should never eat
Stay in touch
Feel like old friends (or family) have fallen by the wayside? It's good for your health to reconnect with them. Research suggests people with strong social ties live longer than those who don't.
In fact, a lack of social bonds can damage your health as much as alcohol abuse and smoking, and even more than obesity and lack of exercise, a 2010 study in the journal PLoS Medicine suggests.
In a technology-fixated era, it's never been easier to stay in touch-or rejuvenate your relationship-with friends and family, so fire up Facebook and follow up with in-person visits.
Fear that you've failed too many times to try again? Talk to any ex-smoker, and you'll see that multiple attempts are often the path to success.
Try different methods to find out what works. And think of the cash you'll save! (We know you know the ginormous health benefit.)
"It's one of the harder habits to quit," says Merle Myerson, MD, director of the Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Program at St. Luke's and Roosevelt Hospitals, in New York City. "But I always tell people to think of how much money they will save."
Health.com: 15 ways smoking ruins your looks
Save money by making healthy lifestyle changes. Walk or ride your bike to work, or explore carpooling. (That means more money in your pocket and less air pollution.)
Cut back on gym membership costs by exercising at home. Many fitness programs on videogame systems like Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's Xbox Kinect can get you sweating.
Take stock of what you have in the fridge and make a grocery list. Aimless supermarket shopping can lead to poor choices for your diet and wallet.
Health.com: 9 ways to save money and stay fit
Cut your stress
A little pressure now and again won't kill us; in fact, short bouts of stress give us an energy boost. But if stress is chronic, it can increase your risk of-or worsen-insomnia, depression, obesity, heart disease, and more.
Long work hours, little sleep, no exercise, poor diet, and not spending time with family and friends can contribute to stress, says Roberta Lee, MD, an integrative medicine specialist at Beth Israel Medical Center, in New York City, and the author of The Super Stress Solution.
"Stress is an inevitable part of life," she says. "Relaxation, sleep, socializing, and taking vacations are all things we tell ourselves we deserve but don't allow ourselves to have."
Health.com: 25 ways to beat stress over the holidays
We tend to think that we can make ourselves happy by doing things for ourselves, but we are happier when we are doing things for others, like through volunteer work, says Peter Kanaris, PhD, coordinator of public education for the New York State Psychological Association.
And guess what? Happiness is good for your health. A 2010 study in the European Heart Journal found that people with positive emotions and an upbeat attitude were about 20% less likely than their gloomier peers to have a heart attack or develop heart disease. Other research suggests that positive emotions can make people more resilient and resourceful.
"Someone who makes this sort of resolution is likely to obtain a tremendous personal benefit in the happiness department," Kanaris says.
Health.com: The secrets to a super-happy winter
Go back to school
No matter how old you are, heading back to the classroom can have a range of benefits. Getting a degree or just taking a few courses can help revamp your career, introduce you to new friends, and even boost your brainpower.
A 2007 study conducted in the U.K. found that adults in their mid-50s who had gone back to school (including night school and training courses) sometime in the previous quarter century had stronger memories and verbal skills than those who did not. What's more, several studies have linked higher educational attainment to a decreased risk of Alzheimer's disease. This research doesn't prove cause and effect, but it suggests that education may play a lifelong role in mental sharpness.
"You are gaining a sense of accomplishment by gaining new knowledge, and you are out there meeting people and creating possibilities that were never there before," Kanaris says.
Get more sleep
You probably already know that a good night's rest can do wonders for your mood-and appearance. But sleep is more beneficial to your health than you might realize.
A lack of sleep has been linked to a greater risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. And sleep is crucial for strengthening memories (a process called consolidation). So take a nap-and don't feel guilty about it.
Health.com: 7 tips for the best sleep ever
Cut back on alcohol
While much has been written about the health benefits of a small amount of alcohol, too much tippling is still the bigger problem. (Binge drinking seems to be on the rise, in fact.)
Drinking alcohol in excess affects the brain's neurotransmitters and can increase the risk of depression, memory loss, or even seizures.
Chronic heavy drinking boosts your risk of liver and heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and mental deterioration, and even cancers of the mouth, throat, liver, and breast.
The joys and rewards of vacations can last long after the suitcase is put away. "We can often get stuck in a rut, and we can't get out of our own way," Kanaris says. "Everything becomes familiar and too routine."
But traveling allows us to tap into life as an adventure, and we can make changes in our lives without having to do anything too bold or dramatic. "It makes you feel rejuvenated and replenished," Kanaris adds. "It gets you out of your typical scenery, and the effects are revitalizing. It's another form of new discovery and learning, and great for the body and the soul."
Getty ImagesBy Alyssa Sparacino