woman eating vegan food

Are January Health Challenges Actually Healthy?

Medical professionals talk about health challenges to avoid, attempt, and how to succeed

December 8, 2023

Many people ring in the new year with the goal of being healthier. But it can be tough to adopt and stick with new habits. Enter month-long health challenges. You may have heard of some of the most common ones, like Dry January (not drinking alcohol) and Veganuary (going vegan for January).

But do month-long lifestyle changes actually offer health benefits?

“Making changes for only one month will not have a major effect on the progression and overall prognosis for most health conditions,” says endocrinologist Tirissa Jean Reid, MD, an expert in diabetes, metabolism, and obesity medicine. “However, a month-long health challenge can bring greater awareness to dietary patterns and be a springboard for longer-term changes.”

Neuropsychologist Katee Yang, PsyD, an expert in cognitive and emotional functioning, and neurodegenerative and movement disorders, agrees: “Short-term challenges can kickstart healthier habits. The motivation is helpful. But unless the habit can be maintained, there is not much benefit, especially if there is a drastic change.”

The true goal of a health challenge should be to establish sustainable, long-term, healthy habits, so completing a January health challenge alone might not be enough to make a noticeable difference in your health. But the upside of collective health challenges? When you participate in group activities, you have a sense of accountability and support, which creates greater chances of satisfaction and success.

Before You Start a Challenge

If you’re considering doing a month-long health challenge, keep a few things in mind:

  • Every person has their own health conditions and needs – some challenges may not fit with your specific needs.
  • Talk to your doctor or other healthcare provider before starting any program or challenge that alters diet or exercise in an extreme way.
  • Set realistic, achievable goals – overcommitting yourself may only lead to disappointment.
  • Seek challenges that encourage self-compassion and positive mindsets.
  • Choose challenges that align with your values and goals.

Health challenges to avoid

“It is difficult to eat for optimal health when severely restricting nutrients, and also not sustainable,” says Reid. “Avoid any dietary challenges that limit you to a very narrow selection of foods and/or nutrients.”

A strict diet can also be isolating because chances are you're socializing less, says Yang. “Most socializing revolves around food and drink. So, after January is up, the excitement can lead to binge eating or drinking. And social engagements, postponed to February, can negate gains.”

Further, says Yang, monthlong challenges can be extreme. “The more extreme, like if you go cold turkey, the more you will crave.”

And burnout is fast because it's not sustainable. “You need long-term motivation to succeed. Smaller changes that match your lifestyle are better,” says Yang.

Health Challenges to Try

“These challenges are supposed to be helpful, and not bring stress to your life. Do things you enjoy. Become a better version of you,” says Yang. “No matter what, don't be hard on yourself.”

Physical health challenges

  • 30-Day Fitness Challenge: commit to a daily exercise routine
  • Healthy Eating Challenge: add more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins into your diet, every day
  • Sleep Improvement Challenge: Create a sleep-friendly environment and establish better sleep habits
  • Zero Sugar Challenge: Avoid, reduce, or eliminate sugar from your diet; talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about appropriate sugar substitutions
  • Mobility Challenge: Stretch more every day, or do Pilates or yoga to improve mobility and/or flexibility
  • Commuting Challenge: walk or bike to work instead of riding the subway, bus, or train.

Wellbeing is More than Physical Health

Health challenges that encourage self-compassion and a positive mindset are generally the most successful. So rather than thinking of health challenges as restrictive or taxing, the following challenges encourage healthy behavior that can reduce your stress levels and better connect with others.

  • Kindness Challenge: perform daily acts of kindness
  • Digital Detox Challenge: avoid or reduce screen time and focus on in-person interactions
  • Self-Care Challenge: engage in activities that promote self-love, self-compassion, and self-empowerment; try self-affirmations and avoid negative self-talk
  • Social Connection Challenge: prioritize connecting with friends and family
  • Stress Reduction Challenge: add stress-reducing techniques—focused breathing, yoga, muscle relaxation—to your day for more resilience during stressful situations
  • Mindfulness Meditation Challenge: practice mindful meditation to promote awareness and reduce stress
  • Joyful Movement Challenge: enjoy physical activities you truly enjoy and minimize or avoid intense exercise that does not bring you joy

Yang says she always recommends mindfulness meditation to patients, especially at the beginning or end of the day. “In the beginning, it's good to empty your brain. At the end, it's good to let stress go.”

How to win a health challenge

Have an open mind: “The best way to approach a health challenge is with openness and curiosity,” says Reid. “You may encounter new foods, or reintroduce foods you previously didn’t enjoy, and find a new, healthy dietary staple.” 

Go small: “Find little, minor changes you can fit into your lifestyle. Instead of zero sugar. Try less dessert, or dessert only three times a week. Little tweaks. Make things more feasible, more sustainable, more achievable,” says Yang.

Avoid time limits: “Try ‘how long can I last?’, says Yang. “I'm not a fan of “30 days” because you're always looking forward to the end. If your goal is to run 5 miles, you're waiting for the end. But if the goal is to run until you feel good, you may keep going and going.”

Remember, says Reid, “The ultimate goal is to make sustainable changes that can have great impacts on your health in the long run. Approach challenges and shifts with grace for yourself and understand that making even small sustainable changes is not easy.”