Set Resolutions Aside: Let Behavior Change Guide Your Health in 2021

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

Mitzi Collinsworth, January 17, 2021

Goodbye 2020, Hello 2021

Each new year marks the beginning of positive change. It is a time to reflect on what brought us value and how we want to build upon that. The year 2020 felt scary, turbulent, upsetting, and worrisome. Yet, we found peace in the ability to focus on what really matters in life. Despite all of the chaos, COVID-19 allowed us to focus on ourselves, loved ones, and even little furry friends. Our eyes were opened to much needed change to provide healthcare and health education for all people. Even in times of financial struggle and uncertainty, it felt good to find a moment of peace.

We no longer want to work 12+ hours a day 6-7 days per week with no time left to live life. We want fair and equal pay that meets the current cost of living. We have realized that we can do our job effectively in less time and increase productivity when given more time off. What is the point of success and wealth, if you cannot enjoy it?

For those who can work from home, eliminating the commute and time to get dressed up has gained an extra 1-2 hours per day. The flexibility has also allowed people to take care of ailing family members, children, pets, and day to day errands. The World Economic Forum states, “the study shows that fears about lost productivity during the pandemic are largely unfounded. Employees haven’t slacked off just because they are at home. In fact, some home comforts are helping many employees stay at the same level of productivity or reach even higher. They enjoy dressing down, having their pet nearby and personalizing a workspace they don’t have to share with nosy neighbors peeking over the cubicle” (Knowledge@Wharton, 2020).

Those extra hours now allow time for prioritizing our health. No gym, no problem. Home gym equipment sales went through the roof. Good luck finding dumbbells and strength equipment that is either out of stock or being price gouged by third party sellers. Equipment like Pelotons, outdoor bicycles, and the awesome return of the roller skates are making a comeback. My sister and I lived on our roller skates back in the 1980’s. It has brought me so much joy to teach my children the joy of roller skating. Pet adoption skyrocketed and is encouraging people to get outside for daily walks. Bottom line, we are taking control of our physical and mental health again.

Why Resolutions Don’t Work

This is where fitness and nutrition experts, like me, can help. Losing weight and getting in shape seems so easy. It certainly should be, but like anything, you need education for the long haul. Learning to eat right, exercise properly, and making time for mental health is a skill. They are skills like learning to play an instrument, a sport, or an artistic endeavor.

According to Professor John C. Norcross, Ph.D. at the University of Scranton Psychology, “the estimate is that less than 10% of New Year's resolutions are actually achieved” (Weinschenk, 2016). Maintaining your health is a learned behavior. How you eat, move, and think, right at this very moment, is a learned behavior. Many of these behaviors stem from our upbringing or those we surround ourselves with socially.

I cannot argue that going for a 20 minute daily walk will not be beneficial. Of course, it is, but not if you are eating more than you need. These behaviors deserve a delicate balance. As a trainer of 28 years, I have seen almost any resolution you can think of. My favorite is the “I am going to run a marathon this year” and they have never run over 10 minutes 1-2 times per week. A goal must be realistic. I am not going to proclaim that this goal is unachievable. There are many people who have done this very goal and succeeded. However, this will not work for most people. It is too much too soon leading to discouragement and injury. So, let’s look at different theories of behavior change and how you can apply them to set realistic goals for 2021.

Learned Behaviors

What is a behavior? We need to look at the definition that best represents what a human can gain by performing a certain behavior. The Oxford dictionary defines behavior as “the way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus” (2020). A dog, for instance, learns to sit by gaining either positive feedback or a treat each time the action is performed. This turns into a learned behavior. Humans learn behaviors in the same way. If we do something and it receives a negative response, we are not likely to repeat it.

This behavior conditioning begins when we are infants. We learn cues from those who care for us. A baby recognizes they will be tended to if they cry. Growing up, we learn that behaviors can lead to negative stimulus and positive stimulus. Overtime, we keep the behaviors that provide the stimulus we seek.

I grew up in a family that learned to eat healthy and exercise, however, it didn’t start out this way. My parents grew up poor with little to no education regarding proper nutrition and the importance of exercise. They learned to eat a Cajun and southern cuisine afforded to them by their socioeconomic status and family traditions. Several of my grandparents were smokers, ate too much, and didn’t move enough.

My parents changed this behavior chain when my father joined the Army. He was told by a doctor that if he didn’t lose weight, he would die young. From that moment on, our family dynamic was changed forever. My mother learned to decrease food portions and offer healthier options. My father joined a family running program, offered by the Army, that rewarded us with certificates and patches as we hit certain mileage milestones. We began running races together as a family celebrating those of us who won our age group. In high school, my father taught me how to lift weights, and I have continued that behavior through to today.

Our exposure to learned behaviors depends on our upbringing, socioeconomic status, culture, and religious beliefs. If you grew up without an understanding of behaviors needed to maintain your health, there are steps you can take to get you there.

The Theories Behind Behavior Change

A behavior is like a habit. A ritual we perform daily for the stimulus we desire. Based on B.J. Fogg and Charles Duhigg, to create a new habit, you have to follow these three steps:

1. Pick a small attainable action

2. Attach the new action to a previous habit to build upon it

3. Make the action easy to build consistency. (Weinschenk, 2016)

Now these steps sound very simple, however, we have to consider other factors that can affect behavior change. During my research, I stumbled upon behavior change theories from the National Cancer Institute. This research was provided in 2005 titled Theory at a Glance. A Guide for Health Promotion Practice. I found the information compelling because they focus on how individuals, groups, communities, and regions play a role when attempting behavior change. An individual needs the right stimulus, support, and belief that they can actually make this change.

I found the graphic below to serve as a powerful image showing how all of these factors affect the outcome.

This image can seem overwhelming, like the odds are stacked against you, but I assure you they are not. Just because someone may be from low socioeconomic status, have poor genetics, and little to no support, doesn’t mean you are doomed to fail.

I could list all of the theories mentioned in this research, but that would truly be overwhelming. If you are interested in reading the theories provided in depth, please click on the following link to do so:

The Trilogy of Goal Setting

I am a firm believer that a well balanced approach to goal setting will get you the desired result. I preach to all of my clients the trilogy of behaviors that must be in place to be successful. They are as follows:

Physical Movement. A balanced approach to physical movement is a must. You will not achieve your weight loss goal with cardio alone. That is a myth that must be dispelled. Women are particularly victims of this thinking. In the past, women were discouraged from lifting weights. They were led to believe they were not physically strong enough, and it wasn’t viewed as beautiful to have a muscular physique. I will spare you the lesson in women’s history for now, which I am passionate about, and focus on the basics.

Bottom line, no matter the gender, to lose bodyfat, you have to lift weight to build muscle mass. This encourages increased caloric burn throughout the day. Cardio alone will burn calories only for the duration of the actual activity taking place. Cardio will achieve weight loss, including body fat and muscle, so it is imperative to do both to keep from becoming “skinny fat.” That is a thin frame, but with high body fat and minimal muscle. A person with this frame will still be at risk for disease, bone loss, and muscle atrophy.

Cardio will burn calories and strengthen your heart to give you longevity. Building muscle mass will also burn calories at a slower rate overtime, while preventing atrophy, bone loss, and mobility. Now all will be lost if you eat more than you burn.

Balanced Nutrition. Let’s face the ugly facts. Americans eat more than they need. We overeat, even on healthy foods. We are a society of overconsumption. This is not only bad for our waistline, but our environment as well. Americans in particular make up most of the statistics we hear regarding obesity. This is not a legacy we want to maintain. So, it is a wakeup call to how you eat.

If you are exercising regularly and not achieving weight loss, I can guarantee you are eating too much or not enough. I will not discount certain diseases or medications that can cause weight gain; however, these can be mitigated through proper nutrition and exercise. I will provide a separate blog on nutrition alone in the near future. There are so many fad diets out in the world wide web that will not serve you in the long term. For now, seek an expert, like me, to learn how to set up a balanced and realistic nutrition plan.

Physical and Mental Regeneration. We have become a society of work. Our capitalistic society encourages non-stop work for the good of your family and the business. But where does it end? Does it end in my grave? I cannot stand the phrase “I will sleep when I die.” COVID-19 has put this type of mentality to the test. Now that many of us have gained a little more time, the perspective has changed.

You need to set time aside to calm your mind. Get off the gadgets! How is looking at selfies and photoshopped images of unrealistic lives serving you? You need to experience boredom again. Boredom encourages creativity. Get back to your creative side and relax. What helps you relieve stress, calm down, and tap into your hobbies?

Mental and physical burnout are real. This can affect your sleep in many ways. Sleep is how the body recovers and cells regenerate. It is well known, individuals who have trouble sleeping or work graveyard shifts live a shorter lifespan with the increased risk for disease. Sleep is serious work for your body. I will write a piece focusing on the importance of regeneration and sleep at a later time. For now, get off gadgets one hour prior to bedtime and read a book with dim lights.

How to Create Health Goals for 2021

So now that I have inundated you with a wealth of information, let’s get to the nitty gritty. How do I set my health goals? Well, I have a tool just for you. I have found, after years of practice, that the SMART goal technique is the most effective tool to encourage behavior change.

“SMART is an acronym that you can use to guide your goal setting. Its criteria are commonly attributed to Peter Drucker's Management by Objectives concept. The first known use of the term occurs in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran. Since then, Professor Robert S. Rubin (Saint Louis University) wrote about SMART in an article for The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. He stated that SMART has come to mean different things to different people” (

Specific. Don’t fall into the trap of saying you want to lose weight or get in shape. Those are too broad. You need to define your why with open ended questions.

· Why do you want this goal?

· What specifically do you want to happen?

· How will your life change if you achieve it?

· Why is this so important to you?

An example that is commonly used is preparation for a wedding day. This example can be narrowed down to a specific goal. People typically want to lose weight for their wedding day because they want to feel confident and be at their best for themselves and their partner. They want to feel a sense of pride in themselves. The goal is specific in the way that they need to lose a certain amount of weight or clothing size by a certain timeframe. Most goals are emotional. Tap into your deep emotions and keep journaling why this goal is so important to you. Why does this need to happen in your life? What is the positive impact it will bring to you and those around you?

If you are stuck on finding your why, then re-writing a story might be best for you. “In his book, Redirect, Timothy Wilson describes a large body of impressive research of how stories can change behavior long-term. One technique he has researched is "story-editing":

Write out your existing story. Pay special attention to anything about the story that goes AGAINST the new resolution you want to adopt. So, if your goal is to learn how to unplug and be less stressed, then write out a story that is realistic, that shows that it's hard for you to de-stress, that you tend to get overly involved in dramas at home or at work. Now re-write the story -- create a new self-story. Tell the story of the new way of being. Tell the story of the person who appreciates life and takes time to take care of themself” (Weinschenk, 2016).

Measurable. Your goal has to be measured. In weight loss, goals are typically measured by girth, a scale, or body fat measurements. Make sure you know where you began. Measure throughout the process to track your progress so adjustments can be made. This can help redirect your course through your journey.

Achievable. It is time to be realistic. Can you really stop drinking wine all together after drinking at least 2-3 glasses per night? Don’t set yourself up for failure. Tiny shifts in behavior will lead to success overtime. Instead, aim for one less glass every two weeks. Break the goal up into short-term attainable goals.

Relevant. Is your goal realistic to your current life? We can fall into a trap of dream goals. It is great to have dream goals, but in reality, it takes time to get there. Think of 2021 as one small step towards that dream goal. A good idea is to map out your dream goal into realistic chunks. Start with the 10 year goal, then 5, 2, 1, 6 months, 3 months, and then a daily goal. You get the idea with the pattern here. The dream goal is in the distant future, but that doesn’t mean that what you do today won’t lead to achieving it. What you do now will be a small step to that dream.

Time-bound. Have a final destination with your goal. We can all say we need to stay in shape, but that maintenance can grow stale overtime and lead to less exertion and weight gain. Creating a goal with deadlines encourages success. Create some gentle and flexible deadlines within your goal to keep you accountable. Have an accountability team or partner to keep you on track. If you need help setting up your deadlines, reach out to an expert like me.

The Healthy Humanitarian Can Help Find Your Way

To help you develop behavior change goals for 2021, I created a worksheet based on SMART goal principles. Please download this free PDF worksheet to use. I enabled typing fields so you can type in your responses, in case you are a sloppy hand writer like me. Just click on the image to open the PDF worksheet. If you need help, please reach out to me at

Cheers to a new version of you in 2021. Happy goal setting!


Works Cited

Glance at a - National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2021, from

Knowledge@Wharton, (2016, November 16) If pandemic productivity is up, why is innovation slowing down? Pioneers of Change Summit, journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Oxford Learner's Dictionaries: Find definitions, translations, and grammar explanations at Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2021, from

The Mind Tools Content Team By the Mind Tools Content Team, Team, T., Wrote, B., Wrote, M., & Wrote, M. (n.d.). SMART Goals: – How to Make Your Goals Achievable. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from

Weinschenk, S., Ph.D. (2016, December 19). The Science of Why New Year's Resolutions Don't Work. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from

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