4 common mistakes as we kick off the new year – and how first responders can avoid them

January 7, 2021

by Dr. Anna Courie - Director, Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T

It’s a new year, a new leaf. Right? The new year is a common period where people set goals for their personal health, wellness, well-being, and quality of life. Goals are one of the best things you can set to facilitate change in your life. And they need to be SMART goals. Too often, people set goals that set them up for failure. And this creates a cycle of hope, determination, slipping up, self-flagellation, and then despair – until the next cycle of change comes around.  I am a fan of efficiency and I want you to be successful, so let’s talk about how you can avoid some common mistakes.

1) Starting an elimination diet:

Every year, millions of people commit to changing their diet.  Committing to a healthy diet is a great goal. But a healthy diet doesn’t equate to an elimination diet.  If you are a pizza lover like me, a lifetime of low-carb or keto dieting, isn’t sustainable. (No amount of cauliflower pizza crusts will change my mind. It is just not the same.)

To lose weight, you will need a calorie deficit to be successful. That means a healthy balance of carbs, proteins, and fats that’s under your daily caloric needs by roughly 300-500 calories to stimulate weight loss.   You are far more likely to be successful in your weight loss goal over a lifetime if you focus on healthy foods your body needs. That also incorporates reasonable portions of your favorite foods. Most diets fail because we make certain foods off-limits, which makes those foods more desirable. Rather, consider the things you really like in your diet, and how you can build in trade-offs to have them. For example, I love having pizza during family pizza and movie night. That means lunch is going to be a salad or vegetable soup, so that I can still attain my weight goals. If birthday cake is on the menu, it’s happening. But it might be half the slice, or I’ll forgo the appetizer to have it. Healthy diets are about balance, not punishment.

If food discipline is an issue for you, use one of the free apps out there for food journaling (such as My Fitness Pal). That will help you identify how much food you’re really eating,  how much you need to cut to reach your weight goal, and give you critical insight into your habits. Thanks to food journaling, I know I am a beast with my diet until the sun goes down. Once,  I unwind for the day, if I’m not paying attention to my grazing, then all bets are off. Food journaling is a great way for you to think about your eating habits, plan for the treats you don’t want to give up, but still maintain a calorie deficit to meet you weight goals.

2) Jumping into an exercise goal without attainable milestones:

Just like extremes of elimination dieting, unreasonable fitness goals can set you up for injury, rather than success. Training for a marathon, half marathon, or even a 5K takes time. Your training plan should add mileage or intensity slowly to let your body adapt to the new activity without causing an injury. One trainer I worked with used to tell me you can increase your speed, your length of time exercising, or your intensity (i.e. adding weights or distance), but you shouldn’t do all three at once. This would increase your risk for injury substantially. 

Law enforcement officers and firefighters are already prone to injuries that come with the job. But you need physical activity to stay strong and fit. So, it’s important you set reasonable objectives when you take on new fitness goals. This is where SMART objectives (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time bound) can be incredibly useful. One example of a SMART fitness objective would be: For the next eight weeks, I will run three times a week using the “Couch to 5K” training planning.  If you want to sweeten the deal, add a treat for yourself at the end of your first objective. I reward myself with a massage or pedicure after achieving a goal – it’s self-care and motivation all in one. Once I achieve my first goal, I set the next one.  Physical fitness is a never-ending journey.  

3) Not seeking helpful resources:

While we’ve focused on weight loss and fitness so far, your 2021 plan could cover a gamut of objectives. Whether you are trying to lose weight, increase your physical fitness, incorporate stress management or mindfulness into your personal wellness plan, these are all new habits and experiences for you. Consequently, there are tons of experts and resources to help you succeed. People who reach out to experts for help with their personal goals are more likely to succeed. That means, a trainer, a coach, a nutritional expert, mindfulness expert, a therapist, or other personal goal expert is worth the time and money. You’ll be more likely to obtain your goal and get that rush of personal satisfaction in  getting it done. Once you’ve been successful once, you’ll be more likely to keep up with the habits you set for yourself. Check out the list of resources for all first responders through the All Clear Foundation here.

4) Thinking 2021 is going to be better than 2020:

Most people are saying, “So long, 2020, don’t let the door hit you in the backside!” While funny and somewhat liberating, take a pause to think about what you learned from 2020. It is well-documented that resilient individuals who consider what they can learn from difficult events come out stronger. This requires self-reflection and periods of discernment. So, take a moment to reflect on 2020. Did you learn a new skill you didn’t have before? Perhaps you had a chance to take on something small: like baking bread, training for a race, or reading a book you’ve put off for too long. Maybe the grind of the first responder life allowed you to reflect on your blessings and cultivate personal gratitude. Maybe the intense pressure taught you the importance of taking mindful moments to take care of yourself. These are all “GAINZ” (big gains) in the millennial nomenclature.  Reflecting on these gains provides an opportunity to cultivate hope and positivity – even in the middle of difficulty. This is a critical habit for first responders to nurture when facing a constant barrage of negative events.

You should consider the opportunities from 2020 and look with hope to 2021 – but with realism. The difference between 2020 and 2021 is one day and you won’t be able to wave a magic wand and make all the problems of 2020 disappear. We’ll still be facing the pandemic. Social unrest may continue. And the political climate is tense. You may be grappling with feelings of burnout and the year is just beginning. You’ll still need to practice habits of resilience, wellness, and well-being to tackle this new year. You survived 2020 and gained new skills. Now look to 2021 with hope. You can handle anything the new year throws at you by focusing on those habits that help you thrive, not just survive.