Dry January: Why is casual drinking the bad habit we're willing to cut out?

Why is giving up alcohol for Dry January one of the most popular bad habits to stop? Experts weigh in. (Photo: Getty Images)
Why is giving up alcohol for Dry January one of the most popular bad-habit adjustments? Experts weigh in. (Photo: Getty Images) (Getty Images)

No in the New Year is Yahoo Life’s series about the power of saying no, establishing boundaries and prioritizing your own physical and mental health.

After ringing in the new year, many people around the world choose to temporarily give up beer, wine and other types of alcohol for Dry January. The concept is simple: Participants go alcohol-free for a full month in an effort to be healthier.

In the U.S., Dry January continues to gain momentum. A survey by Morning Consult found that 19 percent of adults planned to take part this year in Dry January, up from 13 percent in 2021.

There’s little argument against sobering up for a month, especially if you believe you’ve been overdoing it — and research shows that many are, with alcohol consumption in adults ages 30 and older rising by 14 percent during the pandemic.

But why the emphasis on Dry January? Why is alcohol the bad habit people are more willing to cut out? What about the other “vices” we should also consider getting rid of?

Quinn Lemmers

Ashley Jones, a family nurse practitioner at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that one reason for Dry January’s popularity is that it might feel like less of a burden to eliminate a habit like drinking rather than adopt a new, healthier habit. In other words, it might be easier for people to latch onto Dry January than step up their exercise routine or commit to eating more meat-free meals.

If you’re striving to eat better, for example, you’ll likely need to prepare more food at home and buy less food from restaurants, Jones explains. And if you’re aiming to become more fit, you might need to buy a gym membership or workout equipment, or hire a personal trainer, points out Jones. “This is in addition to finding time in a busy schedule to dedicate to working out, as well as feeling competent in the ability to perform exercises,” Jones says.

Dry January might also draw a lot of attention because alcohol is a more common “vice” than smoking or drug use, according to alcoholism expert Dr. James C. Garbutt, adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina. “So, based simply on the proportion of the population that drinks and may have some problems or concerns with alcohol, I think that is the major factor in the interest in Dry January,” Garbutt tells Yahoo Life.

That being said, should you add Dry January to your routine this year or any year? And what other habits might be worth kicking in January — or all year long?

The benefits of giving up alcohol for a month

Dr. Joseph Volpicelli, whose Volpicelli Center in Plymouth Meeting, Penn., specializes in addiction treatment, says Dry January’s one month of abstinence can help you assess your relationship with alcohol and how it affects your mind and body. You can achieve similar results by cutting back on drinking, rather than giving it up entirely, during a period Volpicelli and others dub Damp January.

“Whether you choose to go dry or go damp, you can reap the benefits of this time, including gaining insights into poor drinking habits, cutting down alcohol intake slowly over time, and recognizing anxious feelings associated with drinking,” Volpicelli tells Yahoo Life. “What you learn from this may help you change, or completely absolve, your bad drinking habits in the future.”

Several experts praise the potential for Dry January to change your relationship with alcohol. More importantly, it might improve your health. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking too much may cause mood and behavior changes, stroke, heart problems, liver damage and several types of cancer.

However, Dr. Sharon Wilsnack, professor emerita of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of North Dakota, points out that due to a lack of research, it’s unclear what the lasting effects of a one-month alcohol timeout are. Why? Because few, if any studies, follow up on participants’ alcohol habits beyond six months, she says.

Research suggests “that strong motives to stop or reduce drinking may be more important than the specific methods for doing so,” Wilsnack tells Yahoo Life.

If you do feel motivated to take a break from booze for a month, however, Jones stresses that there’s “no super power” attached to doing it in January. “I would encourage people to adopt a dry month any time they find it necessary,” Jones says. “No need to put it off until January if you need it in September.”

What other bad habits are worth ditching?

So aside from cutting back on your alcohol consumption, what other habits should you consider taking a break from for a month or, preferably, forever? Here are five possibilities.

1. Smoking. In 2019, more than 31.4 million American adults were smoking cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Smoking heightens the risk of developing numerous health problems, including lung cancer, heart disease and stroke. Nearly one-fifth of U.S. deaths each year are related to smoking, notes the CDC. The organization offers helpful information on how to quit smoking, including creating a quit plan and providing detailed information on smoking cessation methods, which can more than double your chances of quitting successfully.

2. Eating too much sugar. The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar a day, which adds up to 57 pounds of added sugar consumed per person over the course of a year. That’s well above the 6 teaspoon-per-day limit for women and 9 teaspoon-per-day limit for women recommended by the American Heart Association. Overdoing it with sugar boosts the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic inflammation and fatty liver disease.

3. Not exercising enough. Simply put, Americans as a whole aren’t moving as much as they should be. Just one-fourth of U.S. adults get the recommended amount of physical activity, according to the CDC. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, or 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. Physical inactivity can contribute to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancer.

4. Spending too much time in front of screens. It’s a sign of the Digital Age: Half of American adults spend most of their day staring at a screen on a laptop computer, desktop computer, smartphone or TV, according to 2021 survey data from Statista. Potential side effects of too much screen time include nearsightedness, eyestrain, inadequate sleep and a sedentary lifestyle that can contribute to health problems, including heart disease. Some experts recommend following the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, spend 20 seconds looking at something that's 20 feet away from where you're sitting.

5. Not getting enough sleep. Ideally, adults should sleep at least seven hours a day. Yet that’s not the case for millions of Americans. More than 35 percent of all U.S. adults report sleeping, on average, for less than seven hours per night, according to the Sleep Foundation. So it’s no surprise that almost half of all Americans report feeling sleepy during the day between three and seven days per week, according to the foundation. Chronic sleep deprivation doesn’t just leave you feeling tired — it’s also associated with health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, obesity and depression. The National Sleep Foundation offers tips on how to get a better night's sleep, including having a sleep routine you follow each night.

Focus on making small changes

Regardless of what kind of habit you’re trying to kick, Dr. Yalda Safai, a psychiatrist in New York City, says that taking it one step at a time will improve the odds of success.

“Don’t take on too much too fast,” Safai tells Yahoo Life. “If you decide to start exercising when you have been sedentary, don’t make it your goal to run a marathon. It overwhelms you and sets you up for failure.”

Jones suggests tackling habit-kicking goals in bite-sized pieces to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. “When starting an exercise program, it is reasonable to start with 15 to 20 minutes of an activity two to three times per week and increase intensity, frequency and duration over time,” she says. “I find this much easier than starting out with a goal to exercise 60 minutes five days per week.”

Embracing a new habit for one month, whether it’s taking a break from booze or exercising more often, paves the way for long-term changes, notes Jones.

“It is a great way to ease into a new habit because the task at hand may feel less daunting for 30 days,” Jones explains. “Change can be incredibly difficult, so starting with incremental change month by month may be a satisfying way to make change over time.”

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