So, you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to get healthy. No doubt you’ve banished all cookies and chips from the house and plan to hit the gym every single day.
Let’s get real. In three months, you’re going to be comatose on the sofa with a telltale ring of orange Cheetos crumbs around your mouth.
Most people start off the new year by making grand, sweeping changes — and the changes never stick. What does stick? Thinking small: setting modest, attainable goals and slowly chalking up petite successes as you steadily build confidence. It’s a strategy that can lead to substantial and sustainable health improvements over time, as fitness and nutrition experts well know.
Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to run a marathon or lose 50 pounds — but it’s not going to happen in a month, and when it doesn’t, people often feel a huge letdown and then throw in the towel.
“We’re guilty of that all-or-nothing mentality in so many areas of our lives,” says Jessica Matthews, an exercise physiologist and spokeswoman for the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise. “We have to be doing something at 100 miles an hour or not at all.”
If you want to ramp up physical activity but are currently about as energetic as a tree sloth on a slow day, you’d be better off adding easy routines — even something as minor as parking far away from your destination. “Every step really adds up,” Matthews says.
Or just take a walk while at work. If you can’t afford the luxury of a 40-minute march, do it in manageable five-minute batches every hour, says Felicia Stoler, a New York-based registered dietitian and exercise physiologist and author of “Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great.” You’ll still increase your physical activity by 40 minutes a day.
Dietary first steps can also be ridiculously small, says San Francisco-based registered dietitian Manuel Villacorta, a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Assn.). The person who eats no fruits or vegetables might add one serving a week. Those who never cook can make a simple, healthful meal from a prepared roasted chicken, frozen rice and canned beans.
“Start with things you can measure — amounts, frequency,” he says. “Once you know you’ve done it, then you can go to the next level.”
Why small steps? When you drastically cut out all fattening foods, you may bust out with a great big binge. Exercise too much and your unaccustomed muscles can suffer overuse injuries such as strains and sprains.
Or even more likely, psychological burnout sets in.
Before even the first tiny step is taken, people need to forge a plan to make sure it happens, says Marion Jacobs, a psychologist in private practice in Laguna Beach and adjunct professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA and author of “Take-Charge Living: How to Recast Your Role in Life ... in Six Acts.”
“Change is a process,” she says. “You don’t go straight from ‘A’ to bikini. You have to make a plan for each step you have to take [and] you also have to look at the obstacles you’re going to run into for each of these steps.”
So think, and plan. Want to start running? Make sure your clothes are set out before you go to bed. Want to eat more home-cooked meals? Have a grocery list, a menu and a date to go shopping. Goals should be attainable — and pragmatic. “If you’re not a morning person,” Matthews says, “don’t schedule exercise for 6 a.m.”
You should anticipate difficulties before they happen. If you’re going to visit a family member who constantly pushes food, avoid a major setback by explaining beforehand that you’re watching what you eat. If you need to keep tempting and potentially derailing foods in the house for your kids, figure out how you’re going to handle that.
When people don’t have a plan, they may decide “I’m going to the gym every day,” but when that doesn’t happen, they don’t see the results they want and they quit, Jacobs says. “And then they say, ‘It’s just not my personality. Other people can do this, but I can’t.’”
Making small changes can be easier and more rewarding if progress is documented, be it keeping track of food and exercise in a notebook or using smartphone apps or computer programs that track calories, nutrition and activity.
“One of the best things people can do is monitor themselves,” says Villacorta, who likes the apps for their immediate feedback and instant information. “You can see your progress.”
Having people in your corner is also important — but choose whom you turn to for encouragement with care. “If your husband is overweight and doesn’t want to lose weight, he may not be a source of support,” Jacobs says. “He could be a source of sabotage.”
When you backslide, don’t beat yourself up and use it as an excuse to throw everything away. Think of change as a week-to-week development, Villacorta suggests. “One [indulgent] meal isn’t going to destroy your entire week.”
After a while, he adds, certain once-loved treats may not taste as wonderful. “The cleaner people are eating, the more they feel it when they eat something processed or with a lot of sugar in it,” Villacorta says.
You may feel you need to wait till just the right moment to make changes. But the notion that readiness is all-important is a myth, Jacobs says.
“It’s unlikely you’re going to feel ready to do what you need to do,” she says. “If you did, you’d have already done it.” If you wait until you feel motivated, you may wait forever. Get started anyway.
Feelings — the ones telling you you can’t change — are tough to deny, but you can alter the way you think and behave, Jacobs says. “When you start to move forward, even in small steps, your brain starts to say, ‘Well, what do you know, I can do that.’”
Soon, one walk around the block turns into two. And from there, even a marathon is possible.
“Little behavior changes count — if you count them,” Jacobs says.