Small Changes, Big Difference

When you’re not feeling like the healthiest, slimmest, fittest version of yourself, it can be tempting to attempt drastic changes: Cut out all carbs, exercise for an hour every day, quit smoking cold turkey, meditate each morning—starting…NOW.

Most of us know how these resolutions end.

While they may seem like good-for-you goals (and your motivation is admirable), trying to make huge shifts in your lifestyle too quickly can prove daunting—discouraging you from following through in the long-run. Taking on too many changes all at once can also backfire.

“Some of our guests at Canyon Ranch think they have to change everything right away—their eating, their exercise, their sleep, their drinking, their breathing—and it becomes overwhelming,” says Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D., director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “You don’t want to set yourself up to fail.”

Starting small is not only more manageable, but it also has a ripple effect that can propel you forward in your approach to healthy living. “Generally, when people have one success their confidence grows and they’re willing to try to change something else,” says Dr. Rossman. “If you can really and truly make one change, that can make a huge difference.” Remember: True wellness isn’t all or nothing; rather, it’s a lifelong journey. Here are some suggestions for small, meaningful steps you can take as you go.

Lose Just a Few Pounds. While your ultimate goal may be to drop 10, 50, 100 or more pounds, losing less can have health benefits too. For example, shedding just three percent of your total body weight—that’s less than 5 pounds if you weigh 150 pounds—can lead to reductions in triglycerides, blood glucose and other risk factors for heart disease. And losing just a little more (five percent of your weight) can help you lower your type 2 diabetes risk by 70 percent if you’re obese.

More: The Big Benefits of Losing Small Amounts of Weight

Snag a Little Extra Sleep. Whether it’s because of a hectic schedule or the allure of a TV show marathon, many of us miss out on getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Prioritizing banking one more hour can make a big impact if you’re just falling short.

Researchers at The University of Surrey in England found that when study subjects slept six-and-a-half hours a night, the activity of genes associated with inflammation, immune response, heart disease, diabetes and cancer increased, but the reverse happened when the volunteers slept for an extra hour. Just 60 minutes of bonus sleep each night is also associated with a whopping 33 percent lower risk of having coronary artery calcification, a risk factor for heart disease, according to a study in the JAMA.

More: What’s Stealing Your Sleep?

Move Your Body Just a Bit More. While the standard recommendation to exercise for 30 minutes to an hour, three to five times a week, is sound advice, it’s not necessary to start a new fitness routine with that kind of regularity. “Somebody who has been totally sedentary and starts to work out twice a week can see a huge benefit,” says Dr. Rossman. “In fact, the health benefits that person gets from exercising just twice a week, as opposed to being sedentary, are much greater than the person who goes from exercising four to six times a week.”

One Harvard study of more than 7,000 men found that those who were out of shape got as much of a heart-healthy benefit from 30 minutes of slow walking as fitter people got from a more strenuous activity. There’s plenty of other evidence that a little is better than none when it comes to being active.

Simply making an effort to stand, take the stairs or walk the long route to the water cooler—a concept known as NEAT (nonexercise activity thermogenesis)—can help you burn an extra 350 calories or more each day. That’s the same as a 45-minute walk! And a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that even five to 10 minutes a day of low-intensity running is enough to extend life by several years compared to no running at all.

More: Start Running for Better Health

Make Minor Changes to Your Diet. Rather than doing a complete pantry makeover and “swearing off” major food groups, the more realistic and successful approach to cleaning up your diet is to make one healthy change at a time. “Let’s say you drink a lot of soda and you also have a diet filled with junk food and refined carbohydrates,” says Dr. Rossman. “Just focusing on eliminating the soda is a really good start that can help you lose a little bit of weight, and then build on that success.”

Or you might consider swapping refined carbohydrates for whole grains. (Each serving of whole grains has been linked to a 5 percent reduced total mortality risk and a 9 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.) Even just adding an apple to your day can boost your health. Noshing on one before a meal may help you consume 190 fewer calories, say researchers at Pennsylvania State University. Of course, there are some people who are ready to make big changes and who will be successful at working on several unhealthy habits simultaneously. “If you have the motivation and ability to make a large change or multiple changes all at once, I wouldn’t stand in your way,” says Dr. Rossman. However, it’s important to keep in mind the upsides of taking smaller steps toward your big goals.

Of course, there are some people who are ready to make big changes and who will be successful at working on several unhealthy habits simultaneously. “If you have the motivation and ability to make a large change or multiple changes all at once, I wouldn’t stand in your way,” says Dr. Rossman. However, it’s important to keep in mind the upsides of taking smaller steps toward your big goals.

Instead of judging yourself for not meeting all of your wellness goals in one major push, we encourage you to celebrate what may feel like minor victories. “Small changes can be tremendously powerful,” adds Dr. Rossman, “and we shouldn’t discount making a change in just one area at a time.

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