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This or that: What's the better New Year's health resolution?

Strength training or cardio? Eat more veggies or give up processed food? We pitted popular health goals against each other to help you choose the best resolution.
Strength training or cardio? The physical changes you'll see from strength training can provide a big motivation boost.Jenny Chang-Rodriguez/TODAY illustration / Getty Images

When it comes to choosing a new year’s resolution that will improve your health, the options can be overwhelming. Should you focus on fitness or vow to lose weight? Should you drink more water or banish soda from the house? With so many ways to approach the same goal, you may be stuck wondering which one is best for you.

It’s common to create health-related resolutions for the new year, only to quickly fall off track by the end of the month. And much of the time that is due to embarking on the wrong goal (one that's too broad or drastic, which makes it unrealistic).

2020 has been a long, draining year. It’s time to make our health a priority in 2021, and focusing your efforts on the most effective goal is the first step. So how do you make sure you choose the right path? We pitted popular health goals against each other to help you choose the one most worth pursuing.

Exercise for 30 minutes a day or exercise 5 days a week?

Consistency is essential in accomplishing any goal — and obviously the more consistent we are with our exercise routine, the more likely we are to see results. Therefore, it’s really important to devise a workout plan you can follow through with. If you’re not used to exercising consistently, making that transition a gradual one is key. Exercising 30 minutes a day is great — but is it realistic to go from 0 to 30 overnight?

As a personal trainer, I recommend that my clients commit to exercising five days a week — even if it is only five minutes a day — and then build up the duration of their workouts from there. Getting into the habit of exercising five days a week is more important than how long the workout is.

Winner: Exercise 5 days a week

Eliminate processed sugar or eliminate caffeine?

We all love our sugar and caffeine! And completely avoiding either is nearly impossible. However, too much of these vices can negatively affect your health. But which is worse?

Robyn Johnson, a registered dietitian based near Los Angeles, told TODAY that too much sugar can be dangerous. “In general, over consuming processed sugar has more long-term health effects and correlations with chronic disease,” she said.

So if you’re looking to clean up your diet and know you can only make one small change at a time, focus on cutting down on sugar first. Try gradually reducing the amount of foods you eat that contain processed sugar, which yes, includes those sweet coffee shop drinks. Once you successfully reduce your sugar intake, you can tackle the caffeine.

Winner: Eliminate processed sugar

Do a detox or drink more water?

There are so many detoxes online that claim to eliminate harmful toxins from your body. But instead of prescribing to a drastic cleanse, Mary Ellen Phipps, a registered dietitian nutritionist in the Houston area and author of "The Easy Diabetes Cookbook," suggests making one small change to flush out your system naturally: drink more water.

“The great thing about our bodies is our organs help us ‘detox’ naturally each day,” said Phipps. “There is no need to spend money on cleanses and detoxes when you have a liver and kidneys doing that work for you already! Plus, we can all benefit from being a bit more hydrated.”

This is great news — but how can you make drinking more water even more achievable? When you’re on a detox or a cleanse, typically you’ll have your foods or drinks laid out on a schedule for you for a few days. So take that tactic and apply it to your goal of drinking more water. For example: I created a water bottle station for one of my clients; we picked a corner of her counter and set out six reusable bottles. Each morning she would fill them up and she had to drink all of them throughout the day. The "station" held her accountable and gave her a concrete daily plan to follow.

Winner: Drink more water

Strength training or cardio?

Strength training is an incredibly effective way to build and tone muscles and burn calories. That's because muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue does, according to Mayo Clinic, meaning that it helps your body burn more calories at rest.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for cardio — not only is it a great way to burn calories and keep your heart healthy, but I also advise my clients to add in cardio workouts like dance, spinning and running as a stress release.

But as a goal for the new year, I recommend committing to a strength-training routine, especially if you've had a hard time being consistent with cardio workouts in the past. I've found that getting comfortable with a pair of dumbbells boosts confidence and encourages my clients to keep pushing themselves physically. Plus, the physical changes you will see in your body from toning with weights (or by doing body-weight exercises) is a great motivator to stick with your exercise routine.

So if you are deciding where to focus your efforts when you hit the gym in 2021, head to the weight rack!

Winner: Strength training

Eat healthier or follow a specific diet?

You may think that these two options are one in the same, but there are key differences that can have profound effects on your motivation and ability to follow through. Whitney English, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Los Angeles, told TODAY that while it's important to eat healthy, following a strict diet is almost always ineffective in the long run.

“Research shows that diets in general backfire. They’re unsustainable and often leave people worse off than when they began," said English. "Therefore, instead of recommending diets, I recommend people set realistic, positive health goals.”

Phipps agreed: “A quick Google search will show you a staggering amount of people fail to reach health goals when they attempt to change everything about the way they eat all at once. It helps to focus on your behaviors rather than the outcome.” She explained that you’re more likely to be able to control the outcome when you commit to eating more vegetables than subscribing to a specific weight-loss diet. And this success feels good, making you want to continue working toward it. “That feeling will help motivate you to continue eating more vegetables and making positive changes,” she said.

One of the reasons people are so drawn to diets is the framework they provide — they take the guesswork out of eating. I encourage my weight-loss clients to set up an eating schedule, just like diets offer, and map out their meals in advance. Get a whiteboard for the kitchen or a journal on your countertop that lists out your healthy meals for the week and the times you’ll eat them. Set aside 10 minutes on Sundays to plan this out for the week ahead.

Winner: Eat healthier

Drink more water or give up soda?

So many people love to “give up” something in the new year, but adding something is always easier than taking something away. And that rings true when it comes to what you're filling your cup with.

“We know water is essential and it's easier to add a habit versus remove one,” said Johnson. “If you make habit changes around adding more water, you're more likely to naturally drink less soda anyway, so it's a double win!”

Instead of telling yourself you can’t have soda, set a new rule that you have to drink a glass of water before every can. In fact, I’ve found that when my clients add in a glass of water before a can of soda, they drink the can of soda slower or they don’t end up opening the can at all! Another way to frame your resolution is to commit to drinking eight glasses of water each day before you can enjoy a soda. Oftentimes we are drinking too much of something, be it soda, coffee or energy drinks, out of thirst rather than because of a craving. So focus on water first, and notice how your desire for unhealthy drinks subsides without you ever feeling deprived.

Winner: Drink more water

Eat more produce or cut out processed foods?

The add-not-subtract approach also works best when it comes to making a change in what you eat. If you’re concerned with how much junk you’re eating, you may think that it’s best to eliminate these foods from your plate. But Deanna Wolfe, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Pittsburgh, told TODAY that she actually advises the opposite. She finds that her clients are much more likely to feel good about adding to their diets than removing their favorites.

“Instead of giving up something, what if we added something?” she suggested. If you’ve gotten into a bad habit snacking on chips, set a resolution to keep your fruit bowl stocked and reach into it when the munchies hit. Instead of giving up fast-food delivery, commit to meal-prepping healthy lunches on Sunday for weekday meals that are easy to grab when you're short on time. By adding healthy options to your diet, there will naturally be less room for those unhealthy choices, without you having to feel deprived or restricted (which often leads to binges or falling off the wagon).

Winner: Eat more produce

Lose weight or exercise more?

These two options are sometimes correlated. However, setting a goal to lose weight can be a lot of pressure and it can take all the joy out of establishing healthy habits. That being said, as a weight-loss coach for women, many of my clients have a desire to lose weight, and saying “exercise more” isn’t going to satisfy them.

So here’s my take on which goal is better. Weight loss needs to be measured by more than just the scale. You can also measure it by trying on the same pair of jeans every week, taking measurements and tracking changes in your energy levels, stress levels and mood. If you commit to tracking all of these things, then weight loss is the better goal here. But a holistic approach to weight-loss tracking, and a knowledge of what lifestyle changes help aid in weight loss (healthy eating, regular exercise, sleep, etc.) is key.

If you're someone who will become fixated on the number on the scale, then focus on making exercising more your resolution. Every single client I have worked with over the past decade says that when they work out, they make healthier food choices, have more energy and focus more on prioritizing themselves. The workouts do have a domino effect and you will likely see weight come off as a bonus.

Winner: Toss up

When it comes to setting a new year’s resolution, it’s not one-size-fits-all. Honor yourself and commit to the goal that seems most attainable for you — but make sure you're setting yourself up for success by having a plan in place where you focus on healthy habits you can add to your routine, instead of ways to restrict or deprive yourself.