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What’s the best way to make lifestyle changes last - and do Dry January and Veganuary work?

Many people choose to start the new year with a new exercise routine, perhaps participating in Veganuary or Dry January, or decide to embark on a different diet.

But for those looking to make changes, what are the best ways to do so on a more permanent, long-term basis?

NationalWorld speaks to nutritionists, psychologists, wellbeing experts, and movement therapists to discover how to fundamentally change your lifestyle - including diet, exercise and mindset - on a more longer-term, substantial basis.

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‘A lot of people set themselves unrealistic goals or expectations’

It is advised to monitor and gradually alter your intake, and make small adjustments for your long term goals (Graphic: Mark Hall/JPIMedia)

According to fitness, wellness guru and nutrition expert Penny Weston, the most important part about making lifestyle choices in the new year “is trying to make sure that they are realistic and sustainable”, as this makes it much more likely to be able to stick to them.

Penny said: “A lot of people set themselves unrealistic goals or expectations, such as losing a large amount of weight or going to the gym every day, and then feel disappointed when it doesn’t happen.”

For those looking to lose weight, Penny said in a bid to lose weight fast, a lot of people sign up to “faddy diets which quite frankly are usually unhealthy and not sustainable”.

Although these diets might give you an initial quick weight loss, a lot of that is often water retention or will be put straight back on when you start eating normally again, said Penny.

“I believe that faddy and crash diets are always destined to fail, no matter what time of year they’re started,” she added.

Penny explained people only typically tend to last a few months on a diet, or even less if it’s a really strict diet. Usually they give up because they lose momentum, slip back into old habits, or aren’t getting the correct balance of nutrients to keep them feeling full and energised.

“In order to reach and sustain a healthy weight, whatever that may be, the most sustainable way to achieve this is through a combination of fitness, lifestyle and nutrition changes, rather than a faddy diet.

“Regular exercise and eating a healthy balanced diet is the key to losing weight in a sustainable way. This means keeping a check on portion sizes, cutting down on high fat, high salt processed and high-sugar foods, and eating more lean proteins, grains and fruit and vegetables.”

This is echoed by James Bickerstaff, qualified Nutrition Coach at OriGym Centre of Excellence, who said “restricting any food group is not going to benefit you in the long run, it will simply lead to a deficit within your body”.

James said drastically altering your calorie intake can prompt something called “adaptive thermogenesis”, where the body will burn even less calories to protect your energy stores, and could in turn lead to a steady weight gain.

In order to avoid this, James advised monitoring and gradually altering your intake, and making small adjustments for your long term goals.

Are Veganuary and Dry January beneficial?

Are you partaking in Dry January? (Graphic: Mark Hall/JPIMedia)

For many, January is the time to try the vegan diet and lifestyle or to quit alcohol for the month.

However, Jo Cunningham, clinical director of The Gut Health Clinic, said  although there’s “no harm” in Veganuary or Dry January, taking a modest approach instead of “an all-in approach” may be more helpful for some individuals.

This is because a commitment to Veganuary or Dry January may feel extreme for some people, which can make it hard for them to follow and “trigger negative thought behaviours”.

She suggested  people try the “plants points challenge” if they don’t want to commit to the full month, which is where the aim is to eat at least 30 different plant foods each week, and this in turn could make them more likely to continue into February and the rest of the year.

Ashley Lourens, head of wellbeing at online mental wellbeing services Plumm, added  for those who want to sustain changes for a longer period, “making an extreme short-term plan” such as Veganuary or Dry January will often lead to the change “tapering out over time”.

Instead, she suggested  the best approach to month-long initiatives like Veganuary and Dry January is normally to ask yourself what your objective is, establish your expectations and address what you want to get out of the experience before embarking on the journey, with moderation instead being the way to go for most people.

For those taking part in Veganuary or Dry January, Ashley added  there will be some people who enjoy doing it, but for others it will be “unrealistic” and “exacerbate the feeling of failure”.

‘Start with small steps’

Taking small steps is important when it comes to exercise (Graphic: Mark Hall/JPIMedia)

Exercise and movement is often a huge part of people’s plan to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

But, movement therapist Jeannie Di Bon, who specialises in working with clients with chronic pain and fatigue, and founder of the Moovlite app, said “the key is to start with small steps”.

She noted  during the start of the year, people “feel pressured” to get healthy, lose weight and exercise, but this can cause them to then “go full on and end up injuring themselves”.

Instead, Jeannie advised preparing your body for exercise, as well as preparing your mind to look forward to exercise because you feel the benefit of it, not because you feel guilty about it.

Jeannie also explained how different factors, not just exercise, contribute to a healthier lifestyle.

“Everything really does impact each other,” said Jeannie, who added: “If you can sleep well, eat well – then the desire to exercise will naturally come.  You will have more energy to go for a walk, a gentle jog or a Pilates class.”

Although starting with small steps is important when it comes to exercise, Jeannie said you must also “be consistent”.

You can do this by setting time in your diary to go to the gym or for a run, or book regular exercise classes to attend.

Mindset “is a huge part” of adopting a healthier, more long-term lifestyle, Jeannie also explained, as she said it helps to think about why you want to have a healthier lifestyle.

“You need to make that association in your mind between the action and the benefit.  If you don’t have a commitment to it, it will be very hard to maintain,” Jeannie added.

‘Trust the process’

Clinical psychologist Dr Marianne Trent said mindset is important when it comes to making more long-term lifestyle changes (Graphic: Mark Hall/JPIMedia)

Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist and founder of Good Thinking Psychological Services, also noted how important mindset is when it comes to making more long-term lifestyle changes.

She said it can be helpful for people to think about “new daily habits” they’d like to adopt instead of new resolutions, and to try to only adopt small habits at a time.

Then, “when you have nailed making this part of your daily routine and not something you’re forcing yourself to do”, Marianne said a person is then ready to adopt another habit if they would like to.

As a final note, Ashley added: “As humans we are all different, so even if you have the same end goal as someone else, your journey to reach it will never be the same.”

She said it’s important to find what works for you, focus on the positive aspects of the changes you are making, and remember to take it one step at a time.

Ashley said  our health “is a journey that will last a lifetime, and along the way we will face both challenges and triumphs,” and added: “Start small, be realistic, trust the process, and enjoy the journey.”