No pain, no gain: Are new year’s resolutions a masochistic exercise?

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If we gained anything positive from the instability of 2020, it was surely the excuse to set the bar a bit lower – or rather, to ditch our stubborn new year’s resolutions and invest in a more forgiving, adjustable bar. Within that dizzying realm of wobbly rules, where tiers toppled and reformed in structures more mind-boggling than any Escher drawing, long-term plans became a luxury of the past. Though a lack of certainty is a daunting prospect, it’s also a much-needed reminder that we should focus on the present – and that progress needn’t always mean pain.

With January comes the inevitable onslought of new fitness fads, tracker apps, YouTube workouts and running regimes. Though this joint resolve is unquestionably a good thing, what becomes less healthy is an obsession with unrealistic goals. Signing yourself up for a brutal bootcamp for ten hours a week, to put it bluntly, is likely to be miserable. Going from nothing to extreme exercise will undoubtedly lead to DOMS, (delayed onset muscle soreness), or as the Germans so aptly describe it, Muskelkater (a hangover for your muscles). Achiness is to be expected, but committing to too many sessions could lead to strain and subsequent disappointment when you have to take days off. Likewise, setting yourself a time-sensitive target for weight loss or muscle gain may be disheartening if life gets in the way of your training or if you sustain an injury that takes weeks to heal.

A far healthier way to approach goals is starting small. Forget the arbitrary yearly timeline; instead, begin by aiming for a few HIIT workouts a week, a long walk or a couple of low-intensity yoga classes. This will help you to measure your achievement safely by the effort you put in rather than hanging your hopes on an uncompromising annual outcome. If you do want to monitor your progress more closely, Joe Wicks (aka The Body Coach) recommends that you ditch the scales altogether and judge your improvement based on your fitness, flexibility, and most importantly, how you feel.

When it comes to setting body-based targets, it’s also about what you eat, which is why the start of the year inevitably drags the dreaded “detox” back from the grave. Admittedly, green smoothies taste better than they look, but the idea that we must cleanse ourselves completely has a somewhat dystopian air. Somewhat controversially, some of these diets are gaining momentum: investigative journalist Gary Taube recently – against the research of many scientists – came out in favour of a high-fat, no-carb diet in his new book The Case for Keto. Regardless, while dough may well be the downfall of some, I don’t think I’d be the first to consider a life entirely without bread unconscionable. It’s perhaps the concept of going cold turkey that is most unsettling. “Cutting out” food groups sounds violently negatory, as if we must have pasta removed like a tumour or block pizza from all of our social media.

The motto I always live by is everything in moderation. Though of course, certain medical circumstances – not to mention personal taste – will alter our diets, it’s about balancing meals in a sustainable way and regulating consumption so that you can still indulge when you want to. We are far more likely to stick to a plan if it’s something we can continue in the long term, and if there are tangible rewards. Committing to a cause like Veganuary or dry January is likely to be more successful as there is a visible light at the end of the tunnel – and though the idea of denying yourself alcohol may hold less appeal this year, switching to plant-based products for 30 days is a worthy and achievable cause.

Whether your resolution is writing a novel or learning French, the key is not pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion or chasing perfection but allowing yourself a more gentle progression. Gradual growth is natural and healthy, and after the year we have had, the very least we can do is afford ourselves a little kindness.

Rosamund Kelby


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