Year after year, do you make the same New Year's resolutions to eat better or exercise more - yet don't? If you think it's all about self-discipline, that pattern will continue. On the other hand, research shows that following the example of those who are successful in sports and business can make a big difference in achieving our health goals.

Simply memorizing the calorie and fat content of every food or reading low-calorie cooking magazines will not make you a healthy eater any more than just knowing the right way to hold a bat makes a home-run star. The world is full of people asking, "I know what to do, so why can't I do it?" Knowledge is necessary, but not enough.

Successful executives, coaches and athletes have long considered goal-setting a crucial part of improving performance. In the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, a review of different studies confirms the benefit of setting goals to create healthier eating habits.

According to the goal-setting process recommended by the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the first step is to acknowledge the need for change. Get past the excuse that your eating habits are about average. Where do you stand compared to the guidelines for good health? Do you eat at least five servings of vegetables and fruits virtually every day? Do you accumulate 60 - or even 30 - minutes of physical activity each day? Is your weight at a healthy level?

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The next step is to establish a goal. Your long-term goal might be to lose weight or lower your risk of cancer, but these are not behaviors. Your more immediate goal should be a specific behavior you want to change or improve.

How high a standard should you set for your behavior change? The standard you set needs to be realistic for you. If you currently manage one walk a month, aiming for a daily hour-long walk is probably bound for failure. Studies of successful change in sports and business suggest that goals that are achievable yet challenging produce greater performance than goals that are either too hard or too easy to meet.

Another study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association looked at the role of goal-setting in increasing people's consumption of dietary fiber. At the start of this study, the participants averaged 10 to 13 grams of fiber a day, typical of the U.S. population but well below the recommended 20 to 35 grams a day. Rather than trying to reach the ideal level right away, people in the study were instructed to first aim for adding just five grams to their current levels, and then increase the goal each week by five more grams, until the ultimate goal was met. This same approach could be used to gradually increase your targeted servings of vegetables and fruits, extend your exercise time, or gradually decrease your weekly tally of sweets or alcoholic drinks.

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The process of goal-setting seemed to be the most important part of the overall process of behavior change. Nevertheless, most researchers on behavior change recommend that you also find a way to monitor your progress. Whether mentally or on paper, keeping tabs of how you are doing each day gives you the chance to identify the kind of problems that arise as you try to change, and to then come up with ways that get around those problems.

Monitoring progress also gives you concrete reminders of progress toward your goal. Building confidence in your ability to do something makes it more likely you will succeed.

Karen Collins, M.S., R.D.,C.D.N.
AICR