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How to regain control over your health in 2021

If you picked up unhealthy habits in 2020, like becoming a serial snacker, neglecting exercise, or letting stress smother you, ditch those toxic tendencies in 2021 and start anew.

Fitness columnist Ashley Greenblatt demonstrates a jumping lunge in her backyard in Voorhees, N.J.
Fitness columnist Ashley Greenblatt demonstrates a jumping lunge in her backyard in Voorhees, N.J.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

As the world bids an enthusiastic adieu to 2020, we look to 2021 with hope for better, brighter days ahead. With that wish comes the oh-so popular New Year’s resolution to be more active, less stressed, and healthier.

Let’s be honest, when our world went off the rails, so did a lot of our healthy habits.

When gyms closed and in-person grocery shopping seemed too scary, exercise and eating well became trickier. Thankfully, with the distribution of a vaccine, we’re starting to see the light at the end of this long, taxing tunnel. But until the COVID craze calms for good, we must continue to be more self-sufficient. This is especially true when it comes to caring for your mind and body.

If you picked up unhealthy habits in 2020, such as becoming a serial snacker, neglecting exercise, or letting stress smother you, ditch these toxic tendencies in 2021 and start anew. An isolated lifestyle makes changes more difficult, but it also lets you learn to rely on yourself to get the work done.

Here’s a wellness toolkit to provide the fitness foundation for whatever health goals you set.

Quick tips for setting goals

1. Be specific. Ill-defined goals are hard to manage. For example, if you want to become an avid runner but you’ve never run or haven’t run in years, simply stating your goal isn’t enough. You must be clear with your intentions. Get specific. Do you have a distance goal in mind? Or do you want to run faster? This will help determine how to achieve your goal.

2. Make goals measurable. Once you’ve set your specific goal, designate time on your weekly calendar for exercise. Jot it down because things in ink are more likely to be completed. After you complete your workout, place a check mark next to it to celebrate your success. By the week’s end, you’ll start to see how far you’ve come and feel proud of your accomplishment. Continue this each month to maintain motivation.

3. Make goals attainable. How many times have you set unrealistic goals, such as finally quitting sugary snacks or going biking every single day? It’s natural to want to set the bar sky-high. But this all-or-nothing approach is rarely successful. If you have a sweet tooth, or your work schedule doesn’t allow daily bike rides, you’re doomed to fail.

When we feel frustrated that we’re not hitting these overly ambitious objectives, we’re far more likely to quit. To be successful, set realistic goals. Instead of depriving yourself of sugar entirely, pick one day each week to have a sweet treat. And if, by chance, you do break your sugar-free oath and binge on baked goods one night, you won’t feel the need to resign from your resolution.

Employ an expert

One of the most challenging fitness factors is maintaining motivation. And this couldn’t be more true than during the frigid winter months, when vegging on the sofa is more enticing than exercise. But even when the weather becomes more pleasant and the pandemic passes, there will always be an excuse not to exercise; you’re too tired, too busy, or too far from your goal to entertain the thought of starting. But if you’re serious about a healthy lifestyle, it’s worth evaluating what needs to happen for you to be held accountable.

For many, a personal trainer is the top choice. A good fitness coach removes the tedious task of creating workout plans, and you’re far less likely to cancel if you’ve paid and scheduled to work together. A trainer will keep you going when your motivation waxes and wanes.

Since COVID-19 precautions caused gyms to close, in-person training is trickier. Luckily, virtual training offers all the same benefits in the safety of your home. In fact, it offers more flexibility and freedom than gym-based training because workouts are delivered directly to you. To find the perfect workout buddy, seek a referral from friends or family, or study trainer bios on gym websites to find someone you might click with.

Ask important questions that are key to the success of your wellness program, such whether trainers are accredited through a nationally recognized program (ACE, ISSA, ACSM, or NASM), how long they have been practicing, whether they have any special population certifications (diabetes, post-orthopedic surgery, or prenatal), or any other valuable traits that make them a reliable resource.

If a personal trainer isn’t in the budget and program adherence is challenging for you, consider recruiting a loved one as a fitness partner, or someone who will keep you in check. (Just don’t get mad at the person for helping.) Another option is a virtual workout buddy who is striving toward a similar goal.

Whether you’re an exercise newbie or a super jock, you should include a few foundational moves in your workout routine. The beauty of these body-boosting moves is that they can be modified to accommodate any fitness level.


Beginner: Use a sturdy chair for support and sit near its edge. Your legs should be parallel, feet forward-facing, and shoulders back. With your weight in your heels, push to stand. Do not use your arms for momentum. Then slowly lower to return to the chair.

Intermediate-Advanced: Stand tall and keep your body weight in your heels as you hinge back at your hips, lowering until your thighs are about parallel to the floor, hold for a count, then push through to stand. Increase the challenge by adding free weights or a jump as you return to the top.


Beginner: Stand near a sturdy wall for support. Rest your hand lightly on the wall, making sure not to lean into it, as this can cause postural deviations. Take a step back with your right foot and lower into a lunge so that your weight is resting in your front heel. Your front knee should be stacked over your ankle, while your back knee is under your hip. Go only as low as your natural range of motion will allow. Focus more on your positioning than how deep you can bend into the lunge. When balanced and ready, step through your front heel, bringing your feet together to stand. Repeat on the opposite leg.

Intermediate-Advanced: Perform the same mechanics without using a wall for support. Amp up the intensity by adding free weights, trying a forward walking lunge, driving your back knee up toward your chest and hopping at the top or each lunge, or jumping quickly as you switch from a right foot-forward lunge to a left foot-forward lunge.


Beginner: Using a mat for support, lower down onto all fours. Remain on your knees as you shift from your hands to your forearms, keeping your shoulders stacked over elbows. Be sure that your spine is straight and hips aren’t hiked. Hold here for as long as you can without breaking form.

Intermediate-Advanced: Maintain the same upper-body form, but extend your legs back so your weight is distributed between your forearms (or hands) and toes. Bump up your efforts by performing mountain climbers (driving your knees up toward your chest), lowering and then raising your arms from a hand-dominant to a forearm-dominant plank, or planking near a wall and touching one hand at a time against its surface.

Toss temptations

Indulgent snacking has become a popular pandemic pastime. When you’re housebound, bored, and stressed, snacking temporarily satiates those feel-good cravings. But months of mindless munching can have serious long-term health effects. So whether you’re a daytime nibbler or a nighttime nosher, now is the time to purge your pantry of problematic foods.

Dispose of or donate holiday leftovers, pastries, and alcoholic beverages. Replace calorically dense snacks such as cheese and crackers with healthier options such as fresh vegetables and hummus. Monitor portion sizes. Just because hummus is healthy, that’s not a green light to polish off the entire container.

Squash stress

2020 was a tough year. Being constantly confronted with disturbing situations can take a toll on your health. Outside influences can quickly manifest into physical symptoms such as shallow and labored breathing, tight muscles or tension headaches. You need to carve out time to unplug and recharge.

Simple, soothing stretches and breathing techniques can reduce the accumulated pressures of the day. When practicing, silence your devices to remove any distractions.

Note: These light exercises are intended to promote and improve your circulation and mood. They are not a replacement for professional help if you’re having a difficult time managing stress or depression.

Happy baby

  1. From a supine position, press your lower back into the floor and pull your legs up so they are hovering over your chest.

  2. Hold the inside or outside of your foot (whichever is more comfortable), or, if flexibility is a concern, hold at your ankles. Pull your legs back until your thighs rest at the sides of your body. Your ankles should be directly above your knees and feet flat. Hold for 20 seconds, then release.

Figure four

  1. Begin on your back with knees bent and both feet on the floor.

  2. Cross your right leg over your left so your right ankle is resting just above your left knee.

  3. Elevate your legs and wrap your hands behind your left thigh. Keep your upper body relaxed and in contact with the floor as you pull your left leg in toward your torso. Hold for 20 seconds, then switch sides.

Trunk rotations

  1. Remain on your back with legs elevated and knees bent. Extend your arms, palms down, to your sides for support.

  2. Keep your knees and thighs pressed together as you rotate your legs to your right. You can place a pillow between your legs for cushion and support. Stop once all your weight is on your right hip. Now push through your palms and core muscles to bring your knees back to center. Repeat on your left side. This is one repetition. Continue this controlled sequence for 16 repetitions in total.

Neck stretch

  1. Stand tall and bring your arms behind your back.

  2. Using your right hand, grasp your left wrist and apply slight downward pressure as you tilt your head to the right and bring your ear down toward your shoulder. Hold for 20 seconds. Now hold your right wrist with your left hand, and tilt your neck to the left and hold.

Progressive muscle relaxation. This two-step process forces the brain to recognize and differentiate between a taut, tired muscle and a relaxed one. Repeat this exercise twice every day. Here’s how it works:

Step 1. Sit on a chair and take a deep breath in. Apply pressure to your forehead muscles by furrowing your brow. Continue to breathe evenly as you hold for 10 seconds, concentrating on this sensation. You may even notice it’s difficult to avoid holding your breath. When this happens, the flow of oxygen is reduced to the brain causing a feeling of hyperventilation and dizziness. So if you’ve been stressed during a workday or are suffering from anxiety, perhaps you have experienced this unpleasant symptom. Release your muscle contraction as you slowly exhale.

Step 2. Repeat this process on different body parts down to your toes.

The only thing we have control over in life is our reaction. Choose to be proactive this year by taking the steps necessary to achieve your wellness wishes.

Ashley Blake Greenblatt is is a certified personal trainer and wellness coach in South Jersey. To learn more about her virtual training program, go to