Dry January, Veganuary, New Year fitness challenges: What are the health benefits and drawbacks?

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Let’s take a look at this month’s most popular challenges and ask the experts for advice on how to do things the right way.

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January is usually the time for new resolutions for the year ahead. Maintaining a healthier lifestyle and routine usually tops the list of resolutions people make each year, though it doesn’t always last.

We spoke to specialists to weigh the risks and benefits of the most common January challenges.

Dry January: Say goodbye to alcohol for 31 days

Benefits: Better overall health, from better sleep to lower blood pressure

Risks: some side effects for those dependent on alcohol

This edition marks the eleventh anniversary of Dry January, which the charity Alcohol change in the UK launched. The challenge has become very popular in recent years, so much so that the dedicated hashtag #dryjanuary has exceeded 500,000 posts on Instagram.

For people who have detoxed from social media (congrats to you!), the Dry January goal is to give up alcohol for 31 days.

According to the charity, nearly 9 million people in the UK were considering adopting in 2024. And the trend has spread around the world. Even France – not exactly renowned for its sobriety – tried it with a launch in 2020 supported by the national public health agency.

“Our research shows that there are a variety of reasons for drinking more in the last year; many people are still worried about rising costs and are using alcohol as an attempt to cope, but we also see people socializing more freely, perhaps as people continue to enjoy freedom post-pandemic,” Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, said in a statement.

The site provides a list of tips, articles, and even a free app to keep people motivated.

“67% of people who take part in Dry January and access our free tools and resources have a completely alcohol-free month, compared to just 33% of those who try to go dry on their own,” Piper added.

A study conducted in 2018 by the Royal Free Hospital in London showed that a month without alcohol leads to a lowering of blood pressure and cholesterol and also reduces the risk of diabetes.

Dr. Hervé Martini, an addiction specialist, also points out that quitting alcohol has benefits when it comes to sleep and anxiety. “Alcohol is a substance that disturbs the sleep cycle. When you stop drinking, the quality of your sleep is better,” he told Euronews Next.

What if I give in during happy hour? “It’s not a competition, there’s no back-and-forth,” Martini said. “The idea is to ask yourself: Why did I drink? How did I feel? It’s really a reflection on yourself.”

The only caveat he mentioned is for alcohol dependent people for whom drinking has become a psychological need.

“Alcohol changes the way the brain works, it gets you used to drinking alcohol,” Martini explained. To avoid withdrawal symptoms, the help of a healthcare professional is therefore necessary.

Veganuary: Try switching to a plant-based diet

Advantages: lower environmental impact and lower blood sugar levels

Risks: The diet should be sufficiently balanced to avoid deficiencies

Launched in 2014, Veganuary – a word meaning vegan and January – has convinced half a million people in 2021.

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According to several studies, plant-based products are significantly better for the environment, because they require much less land and water and generate much less pollution than animal-based products.

It might even be healthier: a study published in December 2022 linked nitrites found in processed meat to a greater chance of developing colorectal cancer.

“I think the number one concern for people is that they won’t be able to get enough protein on a plant-based diet. I also think people vastly overestimate the amount of protein they need,” She said Dr. Reshma Shah, MD, plant-based nutrition advocate and co-author of “Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families.”

Florence Foucaut, Parisian dietician and nutritionist, confirms that a balanced diet should not lead to deficiencies. Adding vegetables, fruit and fiber will provide you with additional vitamins, while reducing the amount of meat you eat will help lower your cholesterol.

The two specialists agree that the diet must be properly planned to provide all the nutrients the body needs such as iodine, omega 3, calcium, selenium and vitamin B12. The latter can be taken as a supplement.

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Foucault suggests adding algae, omega-3 oils, nuts and mineral water to your dishes, as well as limiting your intake of highly processed foods, even if they are vegan.

To help you adapt to veganism, several websites curate tasty recipes.

While the aim of Veganuary is to try going vegan for a month, you could also opt for the less restrictive option of vegetarianism.

“The only thing to watch out for is your iron intake. Combining foods rich in vitamin C with foods rich in plant iron is better for iron absorption,” Foucaut said.

There is also the risk that a vegan diet, with its restrictions, could hide an eating disorder. Foucaut, therefore, recommends patients with eating disorders, but also adolescents, to skip Veganuary unless they can be carefully monitored by a doctor.

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Fitness challenges: the key to keeping moving

Benefits: prevention of heart disease, reduction of stress and anxiety levels… physical activity is linked to improved overall health

Risks: Starting small and progressively increasing the intensity helps prevent dropout

From the “31-day plank challenge” to your favorite yoga influencer posting daily videos, there’s plenty of content out there to help you keep your “exercise more” resolution. But is it enough to get you training in February?

The SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound) method is often mentioned as a way to achieve your goals.

So, you can ditch the military-style training and focus on something you’ll actually enjoy. The goal is to move more consistently. Last year the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the alarm about the “obesity epidemic” and linked it to a sedentary lifestyle.

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Physically inactive lifestyles have also been linked to higher risks of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon and breast cancer.

The WHO recommends at least three to five hours of moderate physical activity each week. The easiest way to get there? Break it up throughout the day, for example into 10-minute workouts.

“People automatically feel overwhelmed because it seems difficult, but this level of effort is not as physically demanding as you might think and is quite doable,” said Dr. Caroline Apovian, co-director of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s. Hospital, said Harvard Health. For example, brisk walking qualifies as moderate exercise.

According to the British National Health Service (NHS), a fast walk it’s faster than a walk, at about 3 miles per hour or nearly 5 km/h, and “you can tell you’re walking briskly if you can still talk but can’t sing the words to a song.”

What if you can’t achieve these goals? The best thing for your health is to keep trying. Moving little or at low intensity is still better than nothing.

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Finally, the researchers proved it wrong the myth of 21 days to build a new habit. Instead, they say it can take up to 250 days to create a new routine. So, the January challenges are just the first step.

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