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 have been hitting the gym every single day since Sunday.
Let's get real.
Numerous studies show that small tweaks to one's routine can improve health. Some recent examples on the effect of small amounts of exercise:
Heart health: An August study in the journal Circulation found that small amounts of moderately paced leisure activity — as little as 20 minutes a day — lowered people's risk of coronary heart disease by 14 percent. The paper, which pooled data from 33 studies, found that higher activity levels lowered the risk more than light activity did. But even those who got less than 150 minutes of exercise a week (the minimum amount recommended by the government's 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans) had a lower risk than did those who were sedentary.
Blood flow: A 2011 study found that brisk walking a few times a week improved blood flow by as much as 15 percent. The research, presented at the April Experimental Biology meeting in Washington, D.C., assessed 16 women who were 60 and older. The women engaged in an exercise program tailored to their fitness levels over a period of three months, starting light — exercising for 30 minutes three times a week at about half of their maximum oxygen uptake — then gradually increasing the intensity and time of their workouts. Blood flow to the brain increased an average of 15 percent and the women's blood pressure and heart rates decreased slightly.
Sleep: An August study of 3,081 adults in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity found that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week was linked with a 65 percent improvement in the quality of sleep.
Obesity risk: A November meta-analysis in the journal PLoS Medicine looked at 45 studies including 218,166 adults. Some of them had the version of a gene called FTO that is linked to a risk for obesity. People with the obesity-risk gene were more likely to be obese, but the risk was reduced by 27 percent for those who were at least somewhat active — meaning more than an hour of exercise a week and a job that wasn't totally sedentary.
— By Jeannine Stein
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 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, 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 Association). 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, Calif., 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 apps for their immediate feedback and instant information. "You can see your progress."