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

We take a look at this month’s most popular challenges, and ask experts for advice on how to get things right.

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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, even if it doesn’t always last.

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

Dry January: Say goodbye to booze for 31 days

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

Risks: Some side effects for those dependent on alcohol

This edition marks the 11th anniversary of Dry January, which the charity Alcohol Change UK launched. The challenge became hugely popular in recent years, with the dedicated hashtag #dryjanuary exceeding 500,000 posts on Instagram.

For people who have done social media detox (congrats to you!), Dry January’s goal is to give up alcohol for 31 days.

According to the charity, almost 9 million people in the UK were considering taking it up in 2024. And the trend has spread worldwide. Even France – not exactly renowned for its sobriety – gave it a try with a launch in 2020 backed by the national public health agency.

“Our research shows that the reasons for drinking more over the past year are varied; many people are still worried about rising costs and are using alcohol as an attempt to cope, but we’re also seeing people who are socialising more freely, perhaps as people continue to enjoy their post-pandemic freedom,” Dr Richard Piper, Chief Executive of Alcohol Change UK, said in a statement.

The site gives 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 trying to go dry on their own,” Piper added.

A study conducted in 2018 by the Royal Free Hospital in London showed that a month off alcohol results in lower blood pressure and cholesterol and reduces diabetes risks as well.

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 disturbing the sleeping cycle. When you stop consuming, you get better-quality sleep,” he told Euronews Next.

What if you give in during happy hour? “It is not a competition, there is no slap on the wrist,” said Martini. “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 used to alcohol consumption,” Martini explained. To avoid withdrawal symptoms, the help of a health professional is then needed.

Veganuary: trying to switch to a plant-based diet

Benefits: A lower environmental impact and blood sugar level

Risks: the diet should be balanced enough to avoid deficiencies

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

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

It may also be healthier: a study released 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 eating a plant-based diet. I also think that people widely overestimate the amount of protein they need,” said Dr Reshma Shah, a physician, plant-based eating advocate and co-author of “Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families”.

Florence Foucaut, a Paris-based dietician and nutritionist, confirms that a balanced diet should not lead to deficiencies. Adding vegetables, fruits and fibre will give you additional vitamins, while reducing the amount of meat you eat will help lower your cholesterol.

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

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Foucault suggests adding to your plates seaweed, omega-3 oils, nuts, and mineral water as well as limiting your intake of highly processed food, even if vegan.

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

While Veganuary’s purpose is to try to go vegan for a month, you could also opt for the less restrictive option of vegetarianism.

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

There is also a risk that a vegan diet, with its restrictions, could hide an eating disorder. Foucaut, therefore, recommends that patients with eating disorders, but also teenagers, should perhaps skip Veganuary unless they can be closely followed by a doctor.

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Fitness challenges: the key to keep moving

Benefits: Preventing heart disease, lower rates of stress and anxiety… physical activity is linked to better overall health

Risks: starting small and raising the intensity progressively help to prevent dropping out

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

The S.M.A.R.T. method – for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound – is often mentioned as a way to achieve your goals.

So, you can drop the military-style workout and focus on something that you will actually enjoy. The aim is to move more consistently. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the alarm regarding the “obesity epidemic” and linked it to our sedentary lifestyles.

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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 achieve it? Breaking it down throughout your day, for example in 10-minute workouts.

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

According to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), a brisk walk is faster than a stroll, at about 3 miles an hour or almost 5 km/h, and “you can tell you’re walking briskly if you can still talk but cannot sing the words to a song”.

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

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

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