'96 resolutions revolve around health, fitness Spirit willing? A survey indicates that more than half of those who resolve to change won't.

January 01, 1996|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

The most popular New Year's resolutions made for 1996 fall into one category: health. According to a new survey by the American Medical Association, people want to be thinner and more fit, rested and relaxed.

The same survey finds that more than half of those who make resolutions to be that way won't do anything about them.

Still, after years of experts preaching and teaching to a stubborn public, society seems to have recognized its common vices and absorbed messages on such things as cutting fat from diets, exercising and quitting smoking. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed want to exercise more. Eighty-two percent want to eat a healthier diet. Seventy-six percent want to reduce stress levels. Sixty-two percent want to reduce fat in their diets.

"People who do exercise regularly and stick to low-fat, low-salt, high-fiber diets are no longer considered health-nut fringe people. They're considered run-of-the-mill, smart people who are concerned about their health," said Dr. Richard Corlin, speaker of the American Medical Association's house of delegates. "Public awareness is much, much better from what it used to be. What we now need to do is combine that with a sense of discipline.

"Those who aren't willing to do these things are like the students who want straight A's but aren't willing to do their homework."

But experts say many people try to change too much, and within a week to 10 days, their resolutions fade away.

"The beauty of American society is that we can acknowledge our shortcomings," said Dr. Jack Vaeth, a psychiatrist at Baltimore's Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. "We're doing our own self-analysis of our faults. What would the perfect 'me' be, and how can I go about getting it? Unfortunately, perfection can be attained by no one, and we do set ourselves up for failure."

Even the most health-conscious slip.

Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, state health secretary, swims two miles a day and eats well. Still, he can't seem to stop his Friday night pizza ritual. Dr. Peter Beilenson, Baltimore City health commissioner, runs several days a week and gets enough sleep, but he loves chocolate cupcakes.

Dr. Corlin never smokes, rarely drinks, always wears a seat belt and eats a low-fat diet. But during his frequent business trips, he can't live by that diet. Now he's about 20 pounds overweight.

"My rationalization for it is that I stick to my diet at home, but I travel, and it's hard for me to stick to it on the road," said Dr. Corlin, a California gastroenterologist whose New Year's resolution is to stop making excuses and keep to the diet at all times.

Experts suggest finding a buddy or coach figure who has similar goals and can exercise a continuing influence. They also point out that as far as eating goes, people can splurge occasionally, as long as they basically stay with a healthy diet, including five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and at least one good-size portion of bran or fiber.

This year, the American Medical Association is encouraging people to make a serious resolution and focus on the concrete results.

Not only would exercise reduce stress and make people feel better, but wearing seat belts, cutting down on alcohol intake, and stopping smoking would save a great deal of money in health care costs.

Tobacco alone kills just under half-a-million Americans a year and runs up an annual tab of $100 billion in health care costs, Dr. Corlin said. Changes in exercise and weight could probably add up to a savings of at least half the tobacco bill. Those funds could help reduce health insurance premiums.

But health seems to be the top issue on everyone's mind for other reasons.

"It's the part that people recognize. If you read a book a day, someone may eventually tell you you're smart, but if you lose 30 pounds in the next three months, many, many people will tell you how good you look," Dr. Vaeth said. "So it's very reinforcing to concentrate on the exterior."

Whatever the outcome, though, some say just making a resolution is a good step.

"Whether people actually lose the 30 pounds or not probably isn't as important as the wish to improve, and working toward that improvement," said Jason Brandt, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of medical psychology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

"It is a sign of a hopeful future, that things can change for the better, that people can change for the better -- and that people have some control over their own destiny."

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