WELLNESS
12/24/2014 08:05 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2015

What Experts REALLY Think Of Weight Loss Resolutions

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The question: Do New Year’s resolutions actually help you lose weight?

Answer: It depends.

Results from a 2002 study conducted by psychology professor John C. Norcross of the University of Scranton indicate that resolutions can be useful. It followed 282 adults six months into the new year and found that 46 percent of those who set New Year’s resolutions reported being on track to achieve their goals, whereas only four percent of “non-resolvers” -- those who had simply identified a change they wished they could make in their lives -- were achieving their goals.

Norcross’ study involved people who wanted to lose weight (in fact, it was the most-stated goal among participants). He noted that people who made specific resolutions reported using techniques like self-liberation, reinforcement management, stimulus control, avoidance strategies and positive thinking to help themselves stay on track. The control group, or “non-resolvers," were more likely to report self-blame or wishful thinking. Based on this study and subsequent research, he went on to write the book Changeology: 5 Steps To Realizing Your Goals And Resolutions and believes that “making a New Year’s resolution is a valuable opportunity to increase the quality of life.”

According to Norcross’ work, you have some reason to be cautiously optimistic about achieving your weight loss goals if you make smart, sustainable New Year’s resolutions. But what happens beyond six months, or even a year if you make it that far? Below, we've asked leading experts from a variety of fields to weigh in with tips on how to make resolutions that can help you lose weight.

We asked five people who study resolutions, weight loss and the sociology of medicine to weigh in on how to best position yourself for weight loss.

1. Don’t Obsess About The Date

Making a New Year’s Resolution has to do with the ideal of refreshing oneself -- turning a new leaf, or a new beginning. We have a sense that we’re imperfect, and even those of us who are not perfectionists still want to improve ourselves. And what better occasion than around the day we all think something new is starting? But in nature, nothing happens between December 31st and January 1st that doesn’t happen between July 25th and July 26th, for example. So why make a resolution only once a year? Why not do it every 17 days or whenever you need to?

I try to make my resolutions whenever [the need] comes in the calendar. I can find myself in the middle of April feeling that I’m not healthy enough and decide the next day to start a new regiment -- exercising, dieting, whatever! I also don’t do it for an entire year -- I think it’s too demanding of oneself. The important thing here is to identify the moment when we can create change that would be transforming. -- Professor Eviatar Zerubavel of Rutgers University specializes in calendars and the sociology of time.

2. Keep The Focus On Health

I think you can pursue better health and better nutrition without focusing on weight loss. It’s great to engage in self-care, and that might involve eating better by nourishing my body with foods that are really good for me or that will stabilize my blood sugar or that are going to help contribute to my longevity. For example: I’m going to take care of my body, I’m going to exercise, I’m going to stretch, I’m going to get stronger so that I can live longer and do more things. Those are all positive things, and doing some of that may lead to weight loss. -- Professor Abigail Saguy of the University of California, Los Angeles specializes in sociology and gender studies and is author of the book What’s Wrong With Fat?.

3. Be Nice To Yourself

I can’t really say that making a [weight loss] New Year’s resolution is bad for you, but I’d be really skeptical that it would be any good either. I’m not against people setting health-related goals that feel good for them and are sustainable and make them happy. If resolutions are made out of a sense of self-loathing, and if they’re really unsustainable goals, that really sets us up for failure in the long-term around those issues. Self-punishing goals, or unrealistic goals that come from places of shame and stigma, are ultimately more harmful for people. -- Professor Natalie Boero of San Jose State University specializes in medical sociology and is author of the book Killer Fat: Media, Medicine and Morals in the American Obesity Epidemic

4. Remember That Your Body Isn’t A Project

Whether or not a New Year’s resolution [about body image or physical health-related goals] is helpful or detrimental depends on an individual’s approach. For example, is this a resolution that involves gradual and realistic long-term lifestyle changes or is this is a crash-diet that involves short-term goals and unrealistic expectations?

It’s also important to remember that most diets fail. Even if successful, the majority (one study indicates 95 percent) of dieters will regain their lost weight within five years. But of course we live in a culture where perhaps one of the most common and deeply held beliefs about the body is that we can manipulate it to achieve our desired outcomes –- the so-called pull yourself up by the bootstraps mentality. Our Western culture emphasizes agency and choice and so we believe that anyone who is fat or so-called “out of shape” just lacks self-control and willpower. Yet our bodies are simply not as malleable as cultural ideology implies. -- Professor Samantha Kwan of University of Houston, Texas specializes in bodies, gender and health and is the author of the 2013 book Framing Fat: Competing Constructions in Contemporary Culture.

5. Set Goals Based On Your Own Past Experiences

Many people find [New Year’s resolutions] to be motivating and an opportunity to move forward to achieve improvements in their lives. Whether these intentions are achieved or not depends on a myriad of factors, including the barriers to change that may be quite intractable (such as workplace pressures top-down or lack of money to finance gym visits), individual determination and support from others.

When resolutions are adhered to, this can be a great source of satisfaction and contribute to wellbeing or productivity. I think that many people realise that setting some new year's goals is a worthy endeavour but they are also realistic enough (based on their own experience) to acknowledge that these goals may not be achieved. -- Professor Deborah Lupton of University of Canberra, Australia specializes in media studies, health and medicine and is author of the book Fat.

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"Ask Healthy Living" is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical advice.

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