Why Couldn’t I Keep My New Years’ Resolution?

Now that we are over a month past the New Year, it is a good time to assess the status of our New Years’ resolutions, if you made any. Although this might be a disappointing moment for those of us who have not been able to sustain the commitments we made, it is still important to look back on them and identify what worked and what did not. This reflection enables us to learn from any mistakes that we made during the process. 

First, let us acknowledge that change is hard. There is quite a bit to the process of change that is involved before we even make a commitment to change . We have to recognize that something is a problem, weigh the options of changing or maintaining the status quo, and create a plan that is sufficiently detailed and achievable (more on this later), all before we make our first attempt at a new behavior. Furthermore, once we do take our first steps, we have to monitor for pitfalls and ensure that we can sustain the new behavior long-term.

For the sake of this article, we will take the commitment to a New Years’ Resolution as evidence that you had some kind of plan (or intent) to change, which would indicate that you had already recognized a problem and decided that change was more appealing than the status quo. Some of the most common pitfalls in creating lasting change are that the goal itself is either too vague or too lofty.

Too vague: I want to get fit.

This goal is not specific or meaningful enough to spur organized action. What does being fit mean to you? Being able to run a mile without stopping? Being flexible enough to play with your grandchildren on the floor? Having a specific goal focuses your effort and reduces the chance of feeling overwhelmed by possibilities.

Too lofty: I (never was a runner, and) am going to run a marathon next month. 

Lofty goals impose harsh expectations that may ultimately demoralize you, even if they are specific and meaningful. The pride of achieving smaller milestones will provide the motivation to keep moving toward the loftier goal.

As your goals become more specific and achievable, it is important to celebrate milestones as a chance to both feel good about your accomplishments and set the next achievable goal for yourself in that realm. 

What if you set small achievable goals that are meaningful to you, yet still find yourself unable to follow through consistently? 

Unexamined Root Issue 

A lack of sustained change indicates that the status quo might serve a more important function in your life than you have imagined. Say you are a parent of two young children who wants to start a workout regimen in the mornings. If working out every morning means you aren’t able to cook the healthiest, warmest breakfast for your children, guilt may be keeping you from changing. In essence, you value providing for your children in a specific way more than you value the personal fitness changes. For another example, what if you resolved to stick to a reasonable budget each month by reducing frivolous spending? Inflation and price hikes aside, perhaps you have not identified that shopping gives you a sense of freedom – a compelling reason NOT to stick to a budget where that sense of freedom is limited.

Whether it is guilt, feeling restricted, or some other emotional issue, it is often difficult for people to identify and tackle these issues alone. Friends and family are a good place to start the conversation about some of these root issues, because sometimes close associates can see our blind spots – personal qualities or circumstances we are unaware of but that are visible to others. Talking about our goals with others also helps us rehearse our belief in their importance. Licensed mental health professionals can help us look deeper into the emotional issues that may be holding us back, and can also help us develop more specific, achievable goals that keep us motivated in the long-run. They can also help brainstorm new ways of meeting formerly unacknowledged needs in ways that do not interfere with the changes or resolutions that you are trying to make.

The blog written by Breathing Room special guest contributor Alex Chan, Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist with University of Maryland Extension.

Time to Take a New Look at Your Money Habits


Pay down that old debt in the coming New Year!

The New Year holiday creates a feeling of starting fresh and encourages us to set new goals.  While diets come to mind, setting new financial goals should be on the top of our lists. As you reflect on the past year, focus on your experiences – build on what worked and what didn’t to shape the new year’s money habits.  Here are some ideas to consider as you set your financial goals for the New Year. 

New Savings Account for the New Year

Think about what you want to save for the coming year and commit to opening a savings account to reach that goal. Examples can be creating an emergency fund or setting money aside for your children’s future college tuition. Decide on the type of savings account that will meet your goal and commit to depositing a set amount on a regularly to get into the habit of saving.  For example, if you open a basic savings account, deposit $25 every month and sign up for direct deposit or automatic withdrawals from your checking account. Increase the amount once you are comfortable with saving.

  Visit https://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/september2018.pdf and https://www.investor.gov/introduction-investing/basics/save-invest for information about  various savings accounts.  

Pay Down Old Debt in the New Year

Confronting your debt and thinking about how to pay it off can be scary and overwhelming, but you should use the New Year to face your fears. First make a list of your debts, noting the monthly payment, current balance, and interest rate, and make a plan to start paying them down. Experts recommend focusing on either debt with the highest interest rates or debts with the lowest balances to pay off.  You will likely save more money paying off debts with the highest interest rates but it may be faster to pay off the smallest balances first. Whichever method you choose, start by adding a small amount to one of your current payments.  

Visit https://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnfall17/debt.html and https://www.consumer.gov/debt#!what-to-know for additional information.  

Get Organized

Keeping your finances organized will help you control your money and achieve your financial goals. Some basic tasks to help you start organizing include making a budget, tracking your spending, and putting a system in place to ensure you pay your bills on time every month.  Monitor your credit card and bank statements for any unexpected fees or unusual activity. The easier you find mistakes or unauthorized transactions, the easier it is to correct them. As you organize your finances, start small by picking one organizational task and focus on that task for one month before adding another. For example, start by making sure your bills are paid on time by setting up automatic bill pay from your bank account. 

For more information on managing your finances, explore our Financial Checkup at https://extension.umd.edu/finance.

How Financial Health Affects Physical and Mental Health

As we enter the warmer days of spring and summer, we tend to focus more on our personal health. Have you ever thought about how your finances may be affecting your personal health? Managing personal finances can be very stressful, especially when you focus on how you’re going to make ends meet. This stress carries over into your health by contributing to high blood pressure, weight gain, depression, and other physical and mental health issues. A tighter budget also affects your health through the food that you buy. When you have less money, you typically buy food that costs less, which are often canned, high in salt, and lacking in nutrients.

If you are struggling to make ends meet and get control of your health, it may help to take the Personal Health and Finance Quiz? This quiz, developed by Barb O’Neill, is a self-assessment that gets you on the right track for good financial and personal health. The survey asks ten questions about your daily health behaviors and ten questions about your daily financial behaviors. At the end of each section, you receive a score. Your initial score becomes a benchmark that you can use as a tool for change.

Blood Pressure_Pexels-220723
Financial stress can impact your health drastically. Research shows that stress can increase blood pressure, which ultimately can increase chances of heart disease.

Your score, whether it’s low or high, provides an opportunity to establish new goals. Start slow, by choosing one habit to adopt. After a month, take the quiz again. As you adopt and establish more habits, you can make changes in both your financial and personal health to improve your score over time. You should also reflect on whether you’ve improved your stress levels, financial security, and health. If you continue to struggle to improve your financial standing or health, or if you need additional information on how to make some of these changes, check out some of our previous posts.

For healthy financial behaviors, you can work on:

For personal health behaviors, you can work on:

How I Get Myself To The Gym When I’d Rather Binge Netflix

I post a lot about exercise because I love it. When I was younger and hitting the bars with friends, I would drink water and leave by 11:00, so that I could wake up early for a 3-hour bike ride. I get that’s not how everyone feels about exercise. And believe me—I have my days where I’m sitting in my workout clothes, binging on Netflix, and debating whether I really want to squeeze in a workout.

In those moments, I implement my internal review process. It’s not revolutionary, but it helps me to get moving or at least achieve my weekly goal. If you’re not feeling so motivated, I hope that these questions can help you get moving.

On random low energy days, I usually ask myself:

  • Do I have to wash my hair today? Maybe that’s TMI. But it works. If the answer is “Yes,” I usually trudge towards my shoes.
  • If I don’t workout today, then what? I exercise three times a week and those are my only hours to myself (#momlife). If I can’t swap that day of exercise for another day, I won’t let myself lose that hour. When you’re feeling unmotivated, it’s important to remember why you’re working out and what you get out of it.
  • What sounds fun today? If nothing sounds fun, what’s manageable? This is where it’s important to have a variety of activities that you enjoy doing. Depending on how you feel, you may want to try the following:
    • Group class: First, you don’t have to think about anything—just follow the instructions. Second, everyone else’s energy can help push your limits.
    • Get outside: Nature improves your workout experience and mood.
    • Get a friend: Exercising with friends switches the focus from exercise to catching up.
    • Find an app: I use the Jillian Michaels app and really appreciate how I can tweak it to my energy levels and interests at the moment.
    • Do your usual workout at a manageable level: Part of making exercise a habit is just staying consistent. I have plenty of days when I take it down a notch. Not every day is a personal record day—sometimes you’re more proud about sticking with the workout than setting a record.

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Staying consistent is important for creating habits. If you’re feeling particularly unmotivated, force yourself to put on sneakers and go outside to get a boost from nature. Start by walking around your yard and see how far you can get. Aim for at least 20 minutes. (Photo by Arek Adeoye)

If I’m finding that my motivation remains low over a period of weeks or months, I ask myself:

  • Why aren’t I having fun?
  • Am I still seeing results?

Basically, what do I need to change? Depending on the answers, I either adjust the balance of my cardio and weights, switch to entirely different activities, or buy a packet of sessions with a trainer to reset my workout. Fun and results should factor heavily into your workout plan. Without both of those elements, you won’t be able to sustain your activities. If you can afford a few sessions with a trainer, I have found them to be the quickest and easiest way to adjust my workout and attitude.


Editor’s Note: Starting next week, we will only be posting on Tuesdays. 

The Benefits of Exercise… Even When The Scale Won’t Budge

At a recent check-up, my doctor mentioned that I gained some weight since my last visit. She suggested I work on losing some weight to get healthier. I left that appointment wanting “get in shape”, but wondering what that actually means.

For many people, getting in shape means getting physically fit and losing weight. It can be tempting to think that exercise alone will help you get fit AND lose weight. But it is important to remember that to lose weight, you need to be active and eat a healthy diet.

Research shows that:

  • Even if you don’t lose weight, exercise has all kinds of health benefits!
  • Exercise programs can help people lose a small amount of weight, but they can also result in no weight loss.
  • Using exercise alone for significant weight loss requires a ton of exercise (around double the recommended 150 minutes) and is not something most people can keep up long term.
  • People are most successful in weight loss (and in keeping weight off) when they change their diet AND exercise!

If you’ve set a weight loss goal that focuses only on physical activity, you likely have not created the best path to success. This emphasis can also create the mentality that physical activity is only useful if it results in weight loss. If you want to see more weight loss results, you should create SMART goals for increasing your physical activity and adjusting your diet, such as walking 15 minutes per day, participating in yoga twice a week, and replacing unhealthy calories with lean meat, fruits, and vegetables.

Physical activity has many benefits. It’s not only useful for weight loss but can also improve your mental health and promote better sleep. If you exercise with a friend, it’s also an opportunity to catch up.

It’s important to remember that physical activity provides many benefits, not just reducing the numbers on the scale. If you don’t see the scale change, does that mean you aren’t improving? Absolutely not! If the numbers on your scale aren’t budging, try using these other numbers to gauge your physical fitness improvement:

  • Measure your resting heart rate. As our cardiovascular systems improve, our resting heart rates go down. You can use an activity tracker that measures your heart rate and watch for improvements. You can also manually measure your resting heart rate and track it as it decreases.
  • Perform a step test, which involves stepping up and down on a step for a specific number of minutes. Afterwards, you measure your heart rate and compare it to a table that gives ranges for different fitness levels.
  • Pay attention to improvements in daily exertions, like how far you can walk without getting tired or how out of breath you are when you get to the top of the stairs.

Repeat the same tests over time. The results of these simple tests can help you see the improvements in your system. You want to remember that physical fitness can help you lose weight, but being physically active is beneficial for your health, even if the scale won’t budge! Finding a benchmark for seeing your improvement can help you stay motivated to keep becoming more active and healthier!


Get A Handle On Your Debt

Debt is money that you owe. Whether you took out a loan, used a credit card, or got behind on a bill payment, it’s debt. When debt feels like a barrier to your goals it can be hard to face, but it’s important to remember that with a little planning, you can reverse your situation.

One simple way to address your debt is to create a budget.

  • First gather your bills and receipts to see how much you typically spend on things like groceries, entertainment, transportation, clothing, and everyday expenses.
  • Then add up all your paychecks and any other income. Subtract your expenses from your total income.
  • Look for expenses that you can reduce each month so that you can have more money left over.
  • When you are done, make a budget and try to stick with it.

Being in debt can be scary. Setting financial goals can not only help motivate you, but it’s an important step to becoming financially secure.

Has your debt already gone to a debt collector?
Talk to the collector at least once, even if you don’t think you owe the debt or cannot repay it immediately. By doing so, you can confirm whether it’s really your debt and find out more information. Additionally, a collector cannot:

  • Contact you before 8 AM or after 9 PM., unless you agree to it
  • Contact you at work if the collector is told you’re not allowed to get calls there
  • Tell anyone about your debt
  • Harass or lie to you

Are you having trouble paying your mortgage?
Contact your lender immediately. It’s best not to wait because a lender could foreclose on your house.  Most lenders will work with you if they believe you’re acting in good faith and your situation is temporary. Your lender may be willing to lower or suspend your payments for a short time or even extend your repayment period to reduce your monthly payments. Before you agree to a plan, find out about any extra fees or other consequences.

Are you having trouble paying your car debt?
If you know you’re going to default, you might be better off selling the car yourself and paying off the debt.  You’ll avoid the costs of repossession and a negative entry on your credit report.

Are you having trouble paying your student loan?
If you have federal loans, the Department of Education has different programs that could help. Applying for these programs is free. You can find out more about your options, and how to get out of default, by going to the US Department of Education’s Studentaid.org or by contacting your federal student loan servicer.

When debt feels like a barrier to your goals, it’s important to remember that these tools can help you take the first step. If you still feel stuck, contact your local Extension office and ask to speak with a Financial Wellness Educator.

Use Process Goals To See Greater Progress

When my first child turned one, I felt terrible about my body and my goal was to get back into my pre-pregnancy jeans. Seven years and another child later, I’m still wearing the same postpartum pants, but that doesn’t mean I’m the same person. Would I like to be in my pre-pregnancy jeans? Of course! But I’ve also realized, that’s not really the goal for me anymore.

My goal to get back into my jeans is considered an outcome goal—it’s results-oriented. Focusing on a specific outcome might be a great motivator, but it’s also harder to control. So, despite working with a trainer and nutritionist, I couldn’t get back into my jeans. Outcome goals can also drive you to make unsustainable choices. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle requires building on healthy habits—a crash diet to lose 20 pounds won’t be healthy or sustainable, but slowly adjusting the meat:vegetable ratio on your plate, adding more exercise, or weaning yourself off sodas will be. These actions are processes that can be achieved through process goals. Process goals give you more control over your efforts and results, so that you can build your confidence and avoid getting frustrated to the point of quitting.

For me, my process goals were to learn:

  • Why I had such a strong sweet tooth at 9:00pm.
  • How to make the few hours I have to exercise effective and fun.

With the guidance of my nutritionist and trainer, a lot of hard work, and my fair share of frustration, this 7-year process has taught me:

  • How to manage my sweet tooth and prevent hangry mommy moments.
  • That the new mom doing exercises that I consider warm-ups will probably drop her baby weight by the next time I see her. I can feel really badly about that (which I did, for a while), but that’s not my body and no amount of frustration will change that.
  • That I’m naturally strong and by leaning into what my body can do, I can outperform someone half my age in push-ups and squats.

I used to hate lifting weights, but my trainer taught me how to get in, push myself, and get out. Now, I can tolerate it. It hasn’t always been fun, but I needed to experience this process to achieve the results that keep me coming back. I may not fit in my old jeans, but my legs are more muscular than when I was riding a bike 8-10 hours/week. I’m also faster and more agile than ever.

Today, my cholesterol levels dictate whether I need to lose the baby weight—not my vanity. Is that success? It is for me. I don’t feel bad about my body any more. I’ve also learned a lot, and I know I’m doing everything I can to get healthy at this point in my life. All I can do is commit to the process, see what happens, and adjust when life inevitably changes again. So my goals now are to manage my sweet tooth, get to bed earlier, hit the gym three times a week to work off stress and pump up my endorphins, and constantly look for more opportunity to get healthy.

If you’re not where you’d like to be with your goals, assess whether you’re focused on the outcome or the process. If you’re just worried about results, try aiming for processes that will support the outcome. And when you set those process goals, remember to make them S.M.A.R.T.

How Many Calories Does Your Exercise Really Burn?

Last year, I set a goal to exercise for at least 5 days each week for one month. Part of my deal to myself was that I would get a new book AFTER I achieved my goal. Rewarding myself motivated me to stay on track, but I had to find a reward that supported my efforts, not work against them.

Researchers have actually coined a term for rewarding your good behavior with something you think of as “bad”: self-licensing. An example would be going for a walk and then allowing yourself to have food you might otherwise avoid, like soda. A 185-pound person walking for 30 minutes at a leisurely pace would burn about 126 calories. Drinking a 12-oz, non-diet soda would add 140-195 calories. Depending on the soda, this person would add back all of the calories she burned off during the walk, and then some.

Anyone who has ever tried to track their calories might tell you that getting exact figures can be tricky. Different websites, activity trackers, exercise equipment, and other sources list different numbers of calories burned for the same activity! Even when writing this article, my coworker and I found different numbers for how many calories a short walk burns. Why is that? Exercise is complex! The number of calories burned depend on sex, age, body composition and size, exercise activity, and more. Even trackers, like AppleWatch or Fitbit, which has personalized information about you, don’t get their numbers exactly right.

Estimating calories burned in exercise is tricky and it is a big part of the reason we tend to over-reward with food! But now that you know how difficult it can be to accurately track calories, you can plan supportive rewards. It may also help to change the way you think about exercise! Research shows that we are more likely to reward ourselves when we “exercise” rather than engage in fun physical activity. Find ways to make exercise feel like fun (playing a game with a friend, walking to de-stress), and your physical activity will feel like its own reward—not something that requires one.

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Apparently, exercise feels like work and we want to be paid for it. If you agree, find a way to make your physical activity more funbring a friend or do something that you enjoy. (Photo by Luis Quintero)

You can also think of exercise as something you do for your health, not a reason to eat more. That is, tell yourself to take a walk because you want to improve your health, not because you want to replace those calories with a treat. If you pay attention to your body, it will tell you when you need to eat more food because of your activity!

Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up if you do end up rewarding yourself a little too much! Becoming aware of this effect is one more tool to help you live your life in a healthy way, not another thing on the to-do list. Hopefully, it will be a tool that helps you live a little happier and healthier in 2019!