Make the best of your birthday with the fresh start effect

Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK
08 April 2019

The great thing about birthdays is that they are a chance to celebrate you. Whether it’s a milestone year or one in-between – getting a year older and wiser is a chance to reflect on yourself, your goals and your health.

If you want to join the gym, eat better, have more time for yourself, or take on a new challenge, it’s never too late to get started – whatever your age.

Dog wearing a party hat

Shifting behaviours

Research has found that before a big birthday or milestone, we try and accomplish something significant to give meaning to that decade. It’s quite common, for example, to find that the age of people who are running the marathon for the first time ends in a ‘9’! This is something social psychologists call ‘nine-enders’.

Once we then enter the new decade, behaviours shift again. Bupa’s own research shows that we’re more likely to make significant changes to our lifestyles when we turn 30, 40 or 50. It could be starting a new healthy eating plan or cutting down on alcohol. Dubbed the ‘zero effect’, this is when our perspective shifts and we decide it’s time to take stock of our health.

A fresh start

This is a phenomenon in psychology known as the ‘fresh start effect’. Researchers have found that people use significant dates to make changes, whether that’s New Year’s Day, a new month, or even a new week. We’re much more likely to be motivated to put good habits into practice, like starting a gym programme or learning a new language, on a Monday than on a Thursday.

Old me, new me

The same is true with birthdays. It has something to do with our tendency to view our past and future-selves differently (think new year, new me). We blame our previous misdoings on the ‘old me’ and think that the ‘new me’ starting from tomorrow will be a much better person. In reality, of course, we still struggle when it comes to getting out of bed when that 6am alarm goes off reminding us it’s gym time.

Making positive lifestyle changes

So how can we start making changes, whether we have a milestone birthday coming up or not?

1. Set a goal and create an action plan. Having something specific to aim for really helps keep motivation high. That goal might be to complete a Tough Mudder, or it might be to go to bed at 10am every weeknight. Whatever it is, make sure it’s realistic and achievable for you through creating a detailed action plan of how the goal will be met. Think it through: where, when, with whom, and how often.

2. Build up slowly. You wouldn’t start training for a marathon without a step-by-step training plan to build up the distance, and neither would you be able to lift heavy weights at the gym straight away. Starting small and building up slowly is the key to making sustainable changes. So if your goal is to do 10 minutes of meditation every day, start with one minute and increase this gradually. You’re more likely to stick to this and make it a habit.

3. Make a commitment. Write down your goals, whether that’s in a diary, on your fridge, on an app on your phone. You could even write a contract to yourself and put something at stake; if you break the contract then you risk losing this! As an example, you could set yourself a goal with a time limit of six months, such as to lose one stone. Every week you put £5 in a pot. Then at the end of the six months, if you haven’t lost a stone, you have to give the money to a friend rather than reclaiming it back as yours.

4. Involve others and get social support. Making commitments public is an effective way to stay accountable as you’ll be less likely to back out. You could even ask friends to do the challenge with you, which can be a great way to stay motivated.

5. Monitor your progress. For example, if you want to sleep more, record and track things like how many hours sleep you are getting, the quality, and how good you feel the next day. You could use a paper diary, an app, or whatever works for you. Typically, we’re not very good at estimating our own actions and we might think we get more sleep than we actually do. Recording your progress can also keep you motivated. When you see a string of nights in a row where you have reached your target of eight hours, you won’t want to break that cycle!




Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Lauren Gordon
Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK

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