If you've picked up a bad habit or two since the start of the pandemic, you're not alone. In the fall of 2021, more than 75% of Americans reported feeling high levels of stress, and that stress can lead to bad habits, such as overeating, drinking alcohol and sleeping less.

A new year feels like a fresh start, and it's a time when many people choose to make healthy changes. Health-related goals, such as exercising more, losing weight and eating healthier, often top the list of popular resolutions. However, it's worth remembering that goals aren't healthy if they're unrealistic, if they make us feel bad about ourselves, or if they cause undue stress.

Make your goals SMART

It's fine to dream big, but every big dream is actually a series of smaller accomplishments. Setting small "SMART" goals can help you make your New Year's resolution stick. "SMART" goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

If you want to run a marathon, you don't just go out one day and run 26 miles. Start small and build up from where you are. As you meet each goal, celebrate your success, and remember that feeling when it's time to meet your next goal.

Here are three examples of small changes that can add up to healthier living.

1. Step up to exercise

Sure, we all know we could probably exercise more, but fitting this into your life as a goal takes more than that knowledge alone. Instead of making the vague goal to "exercise more," choose a clearer goal and find something you like to do. Just 30 minutes five times a week can get you to the recommended goal of 150 minutes of moderate activity for adults. Anything that gets you moving helps add exercise to your day, and that can include basketball, walking or even active video games.

Not sure where to start? This planner can help you find activities. You can also just add more action to your day by getting off the bus one stop earlier or parking your car a little farther from your destination. A step counter can help. If you normally walk 5000 steps a day, edge that up to 7,500. Once you're hitting that regularly, try jogging for part of the time or adding another 2,500 steps a day. Record your progress in a notebook or with a fitness app to remind yourself of your success.

2. Move toward a healthier weight

Deciding to "lose weight" can sound daunting and not very fun. Instead, resolve to make small changes and work toward a healthier weight. Most of us eat too much fat and sugar, which adds a lot of calories without adding nutrients. Skip the sugary soda and switch to water with a twist of lemon or lime. Switch from 2% to 1% milk. Instead of pouring dressing on your salad, dip your fork in the dressing. These small changes can add up to a healthier weight over time.

Anticipate challenges and counteract negative thinking by focusing on the potential benefits of making these changes, such as having more energy, preventing disease and enjoying life longer. Do you tend to snack while you watch television? Set out an exercise mat near the TV and stretch while you watch your favorite programs. Alternatively, you could turn off the television and take a short walk to add some exercise and reduce screen use at the same time.

3. Rethink your drink

After the end-of-year holidays, many people re-think their alcohol habits. While most of us know that excessive drinking carries many dangers, including alcohol poisoning or drunk driving, even moderate drinking carries some risk. Drinking more than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men can raise your risk of cancer, heart disease and liver disorders. Dry January or Sober October have become popular ways to take a break from regular drinking. Another healthy trend is "mocktails," festive non-alcoholic drinks that can help reduce alcohol intake.

How to make New Year's resolutions stick

As you make your New Year's resolutions, make sure they're goals that will stick. Here are a few more tips to get you going:

Track your progress

For many people, keeping track of progress can be helpful in striving to reach goals, but you don't want to get too caught up in the routine ups and downs of life. For example, find the sweet spot for weighing yourself. Regular (but not too frequent) weigh-ins can be helpful for some people, but others may find that the process feeds a negative body image.

Seek out support

People who have support are more likely to stick with their resolutions. Talk to your doctor, who can offer tips and tools for identifying realistic changes based on your current health status and your goals. They may even be able to connect you to support in your community.

Find a buddy to check in with on a regular basis too. They don't need to be working toward the same goal as you, but it can be a plus if they are.

Think about addition, not subtraction

Rather than planning to give something up, think about what habit you'd like to add. Adding a new habit can make it easier to drop an old one. For example, you might resolve to take a walk during lunch three days a week. Adding that habit would not only add steps and exercise to your day, but it may also make you less likely to overeat at lunch or overspend on a sit-down restaurant meal.

Recognize that change is a process

First, you think about what goal you want to achieve (contemplation stage), then you make a plan to do so (preparation) and begin to make small changes (action). Soon you may have a new, healthier routine (maintenance)! Moving from step one to step two and beyond often takes time and effort, but the payoff can be huge in terms of your health and well-being.

Reading this article was a great first step!