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New Year’s resolutions

Do we make New Year’s resolutions just to ignore them? Are they merely promises doomed to fail? In this feature, we ask whether, statistically speaking, these resolutions work, and what increases the chances of success. Here is how to possibly make a success of them this year.

| THE INDEPENDENT | New Year’s resolutions are an ancient tradition that continues to this day.

The Babylonians started each year with pledges to pay debts and return borrowed items.

The Romans began their year by promising the two faced god, Janus, that they would behave better.

Although resolutions are popular, they are not always successful. In this article, we will dissect the evidence and answer the question: Should we bother making New Year’s resolutions in 2020?

How effective are annual resolutions?

A study from 1989 tracked 200 people living in Pennsylvania, USA, as they attempted to make changes based on New Year’s resolutions.

On average, the participants made 1.8 resolutions, most commonly, to stop smoking or lose weight. Less frequently, people pledged to improve relationships, and a surprisingly low 2.5% were hoping to control their drinking habits.

An impressive 77% managed to hold to their pledges for 1 week, but the success rate dropped to 19% over 2 years. Although that is a substantial drop out rate, it means that 1 in 5 of those participants achieved their goal.

Of the 77% successful resolvers, more than half slipped at least once, and, on average, people slipped 14 times across the 2 years.

A study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 1988 followed the efforts of 153 New Year’s resolvers who were determined to quit smoking.

At 1 month, 77% of participants had managed at least one 24-hour period of abstinence. Overall, though, the results seemed a little disappointing with the authors writing:  “Only 13% of the sample was abstinent at 1 year, and 19% reported abstinence at the 2-year follow-up.”

Another study, appearing in PLOS ONE, took a more general look at behavior. The research team tracked the food shopping habits of 207 households from July 2010 to March 2011.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that, during the holiday period, expenditure increased by 15%. Three-quarters of this increase went on less healthful items.

Also, as expected, when January rolled around, the sale of healthful items shot up by 29.4%.

However, the sale of less healthful items did not drop in tandem with this health drive — people were buying more nutritious items, but still purchasing the same amount of unhealthful food.

Overall, the number of calories they purchased in the New Year was higher than during the holiday period. The authors conclude: “Despite resolutions to eat more healthfully after New Year’s, consumers may adjust to a new ‘status quo’ of increased less-health[ful] food purchasing during the holidays, and dubiously fulfill their New Year’s resolutions by spending more on health[ful] foods.”

The authors believe that the key to successful resolutions is to focus on replacing unhealthful items with healthful ones, rather than buying both.

That is sound advice, but not necessarily easy to implement.

Successes and failures of weight loss goals

In 2009, GlaxoSmithKline released Orlistat, which they hailed as “the first clinically proven over-the-counter weight loss aid” in Europe.

As part of their marketing push, the company also conducted an internet survey about weight loss that included questions about New Year’s resolutions.

Although the survey was not meant to be a scientific study, it generated a substantial pool of data with 12,410 females from six European countries responding.

A group of researchers took advantage of this dataset and published an analysis in the journal `Obesity Facts’.

They found that around half of the women had made a weight loss New Year’s resolution in the past 2 years.

As for success rates, they observed that women with a body mass index (BMI) of under 25, which health experts define as “normal,” were successful 20% of the time.

However, of those with a BMI of 30 or above, which doctors class as overweight or obese, only 9% reported some success.

In the overweight group, three-quarters of the female respondents said that their primary reason for failing to lose weight was that it took too long to see results. Around one-third of those who were obese or overweight stated that they were not successful due to a lack of confidence.

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