Have you made your New Year's resolutions yet? If not, there is still time. Among the most common resolutions are changes to improve health, including quitting smoking, losing weight, and starting an exercise program. Some people set specific goals, such as losing 20 pounds or running a marathon, while others take a more general approach, like eating healthier or getting in shape. Either way, these are excellent goals that will certainly have health benefits, but they should not be your only New Year's resolutions.


Your resolutions should also include the things you need to do and change to achieve these goals. For example, losing 20 pounds is a good goal for many people. But what that really means is learning about a healthy way to eat, shopping for and preparing appropriate meals, finding time to exercise each day, and focusing on turning these behaviors into lasting habits. In this example, learning how to shop for and prepare healthy meals would make an excellent resolution that would lead toward the goal of losing 20 pounds.


With this in mind, here are a few resolutions that can help you achieve your health improvement goals:


Be realistic

Many people fail to keep their New Year's resolutions simply because they don't set realistic goals or aren't realistic about what it will take to meet those goals. For example, running a marathon is an ambitious goal for almost everyone, especially someone who doesn't exercise at all. It is possible that someone could get in shape to run a marathon, but it will take a long time. A resolution to work up to jogging five days per week, with a goal of completing a 10 k run is more realistic and achievable.


Focus on learning

Making most health behavior changes involve learning as much as doing. Something as simple as eating a healthier meals requires learning about the nutrients that make some foods healthier than others, learning to read food labels to select healthy foods, and learning how to cook and prepare healthy meals. If your resolution is to learn about healthy meals you will be able to achieve that goal and be well on your way to eating a healthier diet.


Manage your time

Most health improvement projects require taking time to learn about, implement, and maintain those healthy behaviors. A major reason the people fail to really get started with or sustain a weight loss or exercise program is time. If you resolve to manage your time to include exercise or meal preparation in your daily schedule you will be much more likely to meet your goals. Trying to add these new activities as “extras” to your already busy day will inevitably lead to them getting squeezed out.


Plan ahead

Most people already know that changing health behaviors can be challenging, even under the best circumstances. It's no wonder that holidays, travel, and other life events can complicate or even derail an otherwise successful diet or exercise program. Make it your resolution to think about what you can do before, during, and after these (and other) disruptions to your routine to keep yourself on track. Planning ahead and thinking “what if” can make the difference between giving up and catching up on your diet or exercise program after a vacation.


The idea of making resolutions that are steps in the process leading toward a goal instead of the goal itself may be new. But focusing on the changes you need to make rather than the outcome may well be the step that helps you keep your resolutions, achieve your goals, and make 2014 a happy, healthy year.


Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.


He is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and is an ACSM certified clinical exercise specialist; his research focuses on physical activity in weight management and the impact of the environment on activity and diet.