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Why small, sustainable goals are the best way to get healthier

January is drawing to an end, and you may have already started slipping off the wellness wagon. But don’t lose heart. Here are some easy ways you can get back on it and keep going

 Eating more vegetables and fruits can have a significant impact on gut health
Eating more vegetables and fruits can have a significant impact on gut health (Unsplash)

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Abhimanyu Varadarajan does not enjoy working out in the gym anymore. So, he has taken up a field sport for his diet and fitness goals for 2023. “I also plan to eat home-cooked and whole foods and eat less outside food. I don’t want to obsess about how much protein [and] carbs I am taking,” says the 26-year-old who works with an NGO in Lucknow.

Like Varadarajan, many of us have devised health goals or resolutions for the new year. But research suggests that only 55% of people sustain their goals. It is, therefore, a daunting exercise to make these resolutions and stick to them in a way that works for us. January is already drawing to an end, and you may have already started slipping off the wellness wagon. But don’t lose heart. Here are some easy ways you can get back on and keep going throughout the year.

Realistic goals

People devise goals for themselves with the hope and insight to change for good, says Dr Sameer Malhotra, Director and Head of the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Max Multi Speciality Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi. “But over-commitment to themselves, setting very high goals, expecting quick results, extremes of approach, and inconsistencies in motivation and behaviour make the tasks difficult to achieve,” he adds. Additionally, very rigid diets or sudden, rigorous exercise routines could set you up for failure, which, in turn, could affect your mental health.“As a result, they might give up on their set goals and go through emotional upheavals, significant anxiety, lowered self-esteem and confidence, depression, frustration, and anger,” says Dr Malhotra.

It is also good to be realistic about your goals, taking into account factors like your age, lifestyle, body type, physical health and so on. And yes, if you are assigned female at birth, hormonal health also needs to be considered. Singapore-based holistic nutritionist Anushka Bhoj suggests tailoring any diet and fitness routines for yourself, considering your hormones and menstrual cycle. She also believes that it is important to take stock of your current life situation before deciding on any goals. If you work long hours, travel extensively, or remain busy with childcare, do not go for something you cannot fit into your schedule. Instead, normalise being active by walking around the office or using standing desks. It will make you feel stronger and lessen your lethargy and fatigue. “If you are someone who has never entered the gym, expecting yourself to look like a certain type—even if your body type is not like that—is unrealistic,” she says, adding that one needs to be kind towards oneself.

Also read: How wellness breaks can help you heal your soul

She also adds that small micro-goals could be more helpful than worrying about absolute resolutions. That’s what Varadarajan is aiming at as well. He says he is not setting unrealistic expectations of himself and wants to do the minimum. “I don’t want to be too hard on myself for falling short of these goals. I want to approach my goals with an understanding that even cooking half a meal or just some whole foods like eggs and milk, is one step better than starving myself or eating unhealthy foods from outside,” expresses Varadarajan.

Nutrition and exercise

Instead of completely overhauling your diet, it is better to make small, progressive tweaks to how you already eat. For instance, “To eat healthily, I would say maybe eat a healthy breakfast first rather than trying to eat all the meals healthy and then just getting bored and going back to your old self,” advises Bhoj. Instead of approaching nutrition from a perspective of cutting down and avoiding certain food items, look at the nutritious foods you can add to your diet. Bhoj suggests eating more vegetables and fruits (more than what you eat in a typical Indian meal) for your gut health. 

Also, do not skip any food group if your body is habitual to it. If you decide to go off grains or dairy completely, it may devoid your body of essential nutrients. “If you are cutting the food type, then you have to ensure that you are getting that vitamins and minerals from somewhere else,” says Bhoj. And yes, eat at home as much as possible since restaurant food is always higher in fat. You don’t have to make elaborate meal spreads; simplify it like a one-pot meal of rice with lentils, some vegetables, and curd or raita. Also, hydrate yourself well. Bhoj advises drinking more water using cues. For instance, drink a glass of water half an hour before your meal or sip it during your work calls.

As far as exercise is concerned, it is best to choose an activity you can enjoy; this makes it more sustainable. You may buy a gym membership under pressure because everyone is doing it, but you may stop going after a month or two. Look out for other options you enjoy, whether it is walking. Dancing or swimming. It is important to look at how exercise makes you feel, rather than focusing on sheer aesthetics. “You do not have to suffer to look a certain way or to be healthy,” says Bhoj.

Don’t forget about your mind

Dr Malhotra agrees with the basics of having a balanced meal and a healthy sleep-wake cycle for your overall wellness. But he also believes that wellness goes beyond it. “Take some time to pursue healthy, constructive hobbies, interactions, and meditation and yoga,” he says.

Also read: How and why you should be meal prepping

It is good to get help from a professional to set smart goals and maintain consistency through motivation-enhancing feedback, adds Dr Malhotra. You need to reach out for support if you witness a poor body image, significant weight changes, or any symptoms of eating disorders. Eating disorders are abnormal or unhealthy behaviours that involve extreme fasting, binge eating, and purging. “[If you face] significant guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, don’t hesitate in seeking professional psychiatric guidance for timely treatment,” comments Dr Malhotra, something Bhoj agrees with. “I can have the best meal, and I can still suffer from depression, I can have abs, and I could still have anxiety. So, it can’t be at the cost of our mental health,” she says.

Anmol is an independent journalist who writes and reports on gender, health, social justice, and culture from an intersectional lens. You can find them on Twitter @ha_anmol

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