The new year is a time for new beginnings, and what better way to start 2024 than by focusing on your health and wellbeing? January is generally pretty quiet, offering the perfect opportunity to reboot your diet and exercise routine and shake off those extra pounds that you may have gained over the festive season.
But the problem with making vague New Year's Resolutions like "eat less chocolate" or "exercise more" is that they're very hard to stick to. Particularly because the boredom of January, when most people aren't going out and there's nothing to look forward to, is a marked contrast from the busyness and excitement of the Christmas season.
Hence the rise in recent years of collective health challenges, which don't just give you more specific targets to work towards, but help bring you together with others working towards the same goals. However, following any random health and fitness program you find online isn't necessarily the best way forward. It's the Wild West out there on the web, and a lot of the advice you'll see on such platforms can be misleading at best, and downright dangerous at the worst.
Instead, here are seven well-established health challenges that are safe to follow in January, and offer a great way to get you optimistic and motivated for the year ahead. Just remember to consult with your doctor before starting any new diet or exercise program.
Veganuary is a global movement that encourages people to try a vegan diet for the month of January. That means you only eat food that's plant-based and avoid all animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, and honey.
If that idea horrifies you, you're actually the perfect person to give it a try. With so many resources available to help you get started, including websites, cookbooks, and support groups, you'll doubtless discover that vegan food is much nicer than you imagined. And there are many benefits to following a vegan diet, including improved heart health, reduced cholesterol levels and weight loss.
Once February rolls around, you'll be under no obligation to continue, of course. But you'll probably find you'll eat less meat and dairy without even trying, because you'll have found so many tasty alternatives during your January experiment. Get started at the official Veganuary website and check out our tips for going meat-free for Veganuary.
2. Dry January
Dry January is a challenge that encourages people to abstain from alcohol for the month of January. This can be a great way to reset your relationship with alcohol and to assess your drinking habits.
Unless you're a clinical alcoholic, no one's suggesting that you should never drink alcohol. In fact, a moderate amount is generally thought to be good for your health. However, most of us who tell ourselves we're being moderate are probably overdoing it in reality. In which case, there are many benefits to reducing your alcohol intake, including improved liver health, reduced risk of heart disease, and better sleep.
These days, it needn't stop you socialising with friends either. The supermarkets and all but the most old-school of pubs generally have a range of booze-free beers, wines and spirits that taste just as good as the ones that give you hangovers.
Overall, most people will feel much more energy and positivity if they go without for a month. And there are plenty of resources available at Alcohol Change UK to help you stay on track, including online forums, support groups, and non-alcoholic alternatives to your favourite drinks.
3. Sugar Free January
Sugar Free January is a challenge that encourages people to avoid added sugar for the month of January. This can be a great way to reduce your calorie intake and to improve your overall health.
There doesn't seem to be a central organisation behind this campaign, which just seems to have sprung up spontaneously, and is also known variously as No Sugar January or Sugar Detox January.
Note: it's not just about not putting a spoonful of sugar in your tea. Refined sugar is found in many processed foods and sugary drinks, so it's about reading labels and where possible, avoiding convenience foods altogether. That also gives you an opportunity to discover (or rediscover) the joy of cooking, and can be as good for your mental health as well as your physical health.
4. RED January
RED January, short for Running Every Day, is a challenge that encourages people to run every day for the entire month. This can be a great way to improve your fitness level, burn calories, and boost your mood.
Obviously there are potential dangers to overdoing it, especially if you're new to running, very overweight and/or unfit. But as long as you start slowly and gradually increase your distance, you'll soon feel the benefits. There are plenty of beginner running plans available online to help you get started at the RED January website.
5. Move for Mind this January
Move for Mind is a campaign that encourages people to completing 31 minutes of activity each day for 31 days. It's pretty open-ended, with a variety of challenges to choose from, such as running, walking, dancing or swimming.
You can get some inspiration for ways to get moving from the campaign's friendly Facebook group, or from the welcome pack you get when you sign up. At the same time, you'll be raising money for the mental healthy charity Mind, so it's an opportunity to feel good about yourself too.
6. Just Water
Most of us don't drink enough water. Not because we don't like the stuff, but because we just haven't got around to forming that healthy habit. So in terms of improving your health, it's about the easiest thing you can do; helping you to lose weight, improving your mood, and boosting your energy levels
If you need a kickstart though, Just Water is a campaign that encourages people to drink more water throughout the first month of the year, and fundraise for the charity Water Aid at the same time.
If you can get to London, here's another great way to get healthy while raising money for a good cause. JanuRu is a 5K race that takes place in the capital in January, which can be done by walking, running or in a wheelchair. Registration is free, you can set your own distance goal, and proceeds go to the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity.
These are just a few of the many health challenges that you can take on in January. With a little effort, you can improve your overall health and fitness and set yourself up for a successful year. So what are you waiting for?