Health & Fitness

With New Year's resolutions, it's best to think small

In 2014, I am going to read "War and Peace" again, cut out added sugar and recommit to meditating at least 20 minutes every day.

In truth, by June, I am likely to have only started Tolstoy's tome, consumed less sugar — and paid attention when I do — and meditated … some. I hope to be nice to myself about that meager progress, for such is the way with resolutions. Still, there are plenty of reasons to assess the past and think toward the future, and doing better is better than not.

Tom Rath, a writer and expert in making change, says it's important to find "simpler wins" with an immediate payoff rather than aiming for overwhelming goals, such as avoiding heart disease. Then, of course, the point is to accumulate a series of small wins, says Rath, whose book "Eat Move Sleep" is full of small, doable ideas. (And there's a website that will assess your habits and offer personalized suggestions: www.eatmovesleep.org.)

With that in mind, we offer small, easy changes that could make this year more productive, healthier and happier than last.

1. Once a week, exercise first thing in the morning. You'll feel strong and virtuous all day, and you avoid the chance that work or family obligations will make exercise impossible later.

2. Cut the sweetener you put in tea or coffee by a quarter. Once you don't notice the difference anymore, cut a quarter of what's left. And so on.

3. Buy a cookbook that makes healthful food appealing, one that focuses on whole grains or vegetables. You might try the runaway success, "Plenty" by Yotam Ottolenghi, or "Moosewood Restaurant Favorites."

4. Add a green or orange vegetable to dinner at least once a week. Even if dinner is a microwaved frozen diet concoction, make a salad or bake a sweet potato. Then do it twice a week. You get the idea.

5. Sit less. Set a timer to get up and walk around the office every 20 minutes or walk when you talk on the phone, Rath suggests. After just two hours on your behind, he says, your good cholesterol drops by 20%.

6. Read the label on the box of the cereal you usually eat. How much total sugar is there? Ten grams? More? If so, switch. Try eggs. Or add fruit and nuts to plain yogurt.

7. Never get on a plane or take a long car trip without packing food such as nuts and raisins, sliced fruit, edamame or small pieces of cheese. Don't be stuck with what can be seen from a highway or what's sold in a terminal (although those choices are improving in many cities).

8. Speaking of travel, don't take people-movers, says celebrity fitness trainer and author Harley Pasternak. Try to skip escalators and elevators as well.

9. Get a reusable water bottle. And reuse it. Keep it filled at your desk. Place it by the TV and your bed.

10. Eat one meal a week mindfully: Taste each bite, consider where the food came from, how it tastes, its texture. Put your fork down between bites, notice when you've had enough and then — stop eating.

11. Don't just drop an orange into your brown-bag lunch. Peel it at home first, which eliminates excuses about messiness.

12. While you wait for the bus or in line, try balancing on one foot. Practice until you are good at it. Stand on tiptoe and balance there. Balancing is easier if you look out and focus on one point.

13. This one isn't new by a long stretch, but it's a no-brainer that works: Ask for salad dressing on the side.

14. Before you get in the car, put your phone in the trunk. Remove temptation. A recent study assessed just how dangerous using the phone and driving can be: For instance, a novice driver dialing a cellphone had more than eight times the chance of a crash than an undistracted novice driver.

15. The folks behind the Meatless Monday campaign say that nearly half of us make resolutions but only 8% of us stick to them. They counter that by suggesting people make a change once a week — what they call the "Monday nudge." Mark it on your calendar — whether it's going meatless or something else.

16. Be nice to someone you don't like. Even once. Even a little.

17. Eat a new vegetable. Jerusalem artichoke? Fennel? Romanesco? Or maybe something more prosaic is new to you. It doesn't matter what it is. Try it; you might like it.

18. Sugar and other caloric sweeteners remain a focus of health and weight loss. Among the recent books to cross our desks are "The Sugar Smart Diet" and "Why Diets Fail (Because You're Addicted to Sugar)." So take a good look at how much passes your lips and cut out something, like that oatmeal raisin cookie you eat every day at 3 p.m. Too much to ask? Cut it out a couple of times a week.

19. Consider investing in a Fitbit or similar fitness tracker, or, Rath suggests, try a $10 pedometer before splurging on a fancy one. They are, Rath says, inspiring "so many people who are walking circles around their bedrooms before they go to sleep" to hit the 10,000-step mark. And, he says, they have helped people change the mind-set that they need to park in the closest space or use the nearest printer.

20. Give meditation a try. A study this week in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. found that mindfulness meditation might help reduce anxiety, depression and pain. And if it doesn't do such big work, it can't hurt to have a few minutes of peace, can it?

21. Embrace failure. Or as Art Markman writes in his new book, "Smart Change": "Treat yourself with compassion" and "remember these little failures are not telling that change is impossible. They may be signals that your plan needs to be revised."

We'd love to hear your ideas for change. Let us know at mary.macvean@latimes.com.

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