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Reach Your Goals: Turning Your Resolutions Into a Reality

Bushman, Barbara A. Ph.D., FACSM

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e3182794106
DEPARTMENTS: Wouldn’t You Like to Know?

Each year, my friends and I make New Year’s resolutions related to exercise and getting more fit. Unfortunately, much of what we resolve with confidence seems to fall apart after a month or so. What suggestions do you have to help us stick to an exercise program for the year, and beyond?

Barbara A. Bushman, Ph.D., FACSM, is a professor at Missouri State University. She holds four ACSM certifications: Program Director, Clinical Exercise Specialist, Health Fitness Specialist, and Personal Trainer. Dr. Bushman has authored papers related to menopause, factors influencing exercise participation, and deep water run training; she authored ACSM’s Action Plan for Menopause (Human Kinetics, 2005), edited ACSM’s Complete Guide to Fitness & Health (Human Kinetics, 2011) and promotes health/fitness at /FitnessID.

Disclosure: The author declares no conflict of interest and does not have any financial disclosures.




A: You are not alone in making resolutions; approximately 40% to 50% of American adults make New Year’s resolutions (8). Ancient Babylonians are thought to be the first to have engaged in the practice of making yearly resolutions (6). The first month of the year — January — reflects the name of the Roman god of beginnings. Janus had two faces, allowing him to look back into the past and forward into the future (6). In modern times, January 1, New Year’s Day, continues to be a time when many people take a moment to reflect back on the previous year and make plans (resolutions) for the upcoming year.

Repeated resolutions may feel discouraging, but among adults, success rates for those making resolutions are approximately 10 times higher than in individuals who desire to make a behavior change but do not make a resolution (8). Success rates for multiple atempts at self-change are higher than for single attempts (8). As you have experienced, when initially unsuccessful, most individuals will make the same pledge until a degree of self-change is realized (8). Sticking with your resolution is the goal, and researchers have identified some strategies used by successful resolvers.

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The top three resolutions are to stop smoking, lose weight, and begin exercising. Resolving to make a change is one thing, keeping a resolution is the real challenge. Although published studies are not abundant, insight can be gained from research by Norcross and Vangarelli (7). In one study, they followed 200 New Year’s resolvers for 2 years. After 1 week, 77% maintained their pledge, but after 1 month, only 55% were still following through with their resolutions (7). The success rate plunged to only 19% at the 2-year mark (7).

When participants were asked to highlight the two methods most effective to making a change, even if only for a brief period, the following were the more frequently listed (7):

  • Counterconditioning involves using behaviors incompatible with the problem (8). For example, eating fruits and vegetables in place of high-fat food options or going for a walk with a friend rather than being sedentary.
  • Fading refers to a gradual reduction in an undesired behavior rather than an abrupt change (7). For example, increasing the amount of physical activity gradually (i.e., reducing sedentary time) rather than beginning an extremely intense exercise program that could feel overwhelming.
  • Self-liberation reflects both the belief that change can be made as well as the commitment and recommitment to act on that belief (8). This commonly is referred to as “willpower” (8).
  • Stimulus control involves keeping things around to remind you not to give in to the problem (8). For example, hanging pictures showing inviting outdoor viewpoints to encourage going out for a walk rather than being sedentary. Also, keeping your walking shoes by the location where you typically would sit to watch TV.


The successful resolvers were more likely to use counterconditioning (in particular, exercise), fading, stimulus control, and contingency management (consequences for participating in a behavior) (7). Researchers point out that a majority of resolvers experienced at least one lapse, even those who ultimately were successful. Lapses actually were reported to help strengthen the resolve of most (71%), with individuals stating that a slip could be an incremental positive learning experience (7).

In another study, successful resolvers tended to be “more prepared to change” and had a higher self-efficacy or higher level of confidence to change (9). These traits seemed to be more important than the desire to change, which actually was expressed at a higher level in the nonsuccessful resolvers (9). Coping strategies used by successful resolvers included self-liberation and stimulus control. In contrast, self-blame and wishful thinking were used by the nonsuccessful resolvers. Thus, it seems that realistic readiness to change, positive expectancies for change, contingency management, and stimulus control strategies are effective, whereas punitive self-statements, contemplation rather than action, and reliance on fantasy are not effective (9).

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Barriers to physical activity can derail one’s best intentions — evidenced by the fact that only one of three Americans are active at recommended levels (4). Table 1 includes some suggestions from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to overcome barriers to being physically active on a regular basis (4).



Ultimately, you want to maintain your physical activity program and prevent relapse (10). However, don’t become discouraged over setbacks — they should be expected. Use any lapse in developing your physical activity habit as an opportunity for problem solving and encouragement to start again or to move forward. Change your mindset from one of feeling failure when physical activity levels decline to one of exploring what worked when you were exercising regularly (10). Avoid the “all-or-none” mindset and instead plan ahead for potential interruptions in your exercise routine. For example, if family obligations are a common stumbling block, consider trying some of the suggestions in Table 1. Even if not your typical workout, finding ways to infuse activity into your day is a positive step and will provide benefits (1).

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Goal setting is an important step for successful behavior change (2). Both short-term (time frame of a week or a month) and long-term (6 months, 1 year, 5 years, etc.) goals should be determined. As an example, to get started with the habit of being more physically active, a short-term goal might be to walk 15 minutes during your lunch hour each day for the upcoming week. Consider the characteristics of effective goals that are easy to remember with the acronym SMART (1):

  • Specific: goals should be unambiguous; clearly describe the activity you want to accomplish. In the example, the length and timing are both defined.
  • Measurable: goals should be measurable; you should be able to reflect if the goal is accomplished or not. Consider the example — either you did or did not walk each day during lunch hour. This is much better than stating a desire to become “more fit.” That type of general vague goal is hard to determine if successful or not, especially short-term.
  • Action based: goals should be focused on what you will do rather than solely on outcomes. The example gives an action to take rather than focusing only on the outcome of improving fitness.
  • Realistic: short-term goals, in particular, should be within your reach. Starting out gradually and building your exercise program will help promote ongoing success.
  • Time anchored: goals should be linked to a specific time frame rather than being open ended. In the example, the time frame is for the upcoming week. There is no procrastinating, and this short-term goal can be assessed readily.

Build successive and progressive short-term goals to reach long-term goals. Your long-term goal may be to complete a local 10K race to benefit a charity or to complete a mountain hike. Whatever your long-term goal, regular assessment of your progress with short-term goals will help you move forward.

Your original resolution included exercising more and getting fit. Taking time to reflect on what you really want to accomplish will transform this general concept into workable SMART goals. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends a balanced exercise program, including cardiorespiratory (aerobic) exercise, resistance training, and flexibility exercises, as well as neuromotor exercise training for older adults and those at risk of falling (5). Formulating goals in each of these areas will help you to develop a comprehensive exercise program. For more information on the ACSM recommendations, see the Wouldn’t You Like to Know column in the January/February 2012 issue of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal® (3). For sample programs, ACSM’s Complete Guide to Fitness & Health can help you get started and progress (1), and various free online resources also are available (Table 2).



Here’s to a great 2013!

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1. American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Complete Guide to Fitness & Health. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics; 2011. 396 p.
2. American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Resource Manual for Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. 6th ed. Philadelphia (PA): Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2010. 868 p.
3. Bushman BA. Wouldn’t you like to know? Exercise prescription. Health Fitness J. 2012; 16 (1): 4–7.
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical activity for everyone: Overcoming barriers to physical activity; [cited 2012 July 20]. Available from:
5. Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenes MR, et al.. American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: Guidance for prescribing exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011; 43 (7): 1334–59.
6. History Channel Web site [Internet]. New Year’s. 2012 [cited 2012 July 20]. Available from:
7. Norcross JC, Vangarelli DJ. The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. J Subst Abuse. 1989; 1: 127–34.
8. Norcross JC, Mrykalo MS, Blagys MD. Auld Lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. J Clin Psychol. 2002; 54 (4): 397–405.
9. Norcross JC, Ratzen AC, Payne D. Ringing in the New Year: The change processes and reported outcomes of resolutions. Addict Behav. 1989: 14: 205–12.
10. Zimmerman GL, Olsen CG, Bosworth MF. A “stages of change” approach to helping patients change behavior. Am Fam Phys. 2000; 61 (5): 1409–16.
© 2013 American College of Sports Medicine.