Little Steps = Lasting Change

By: Sue Comeau | Physical Health | Action Resources

Years ago, when I was doing my kinesiology degree, I had a part-time job working at the university fitness center’s equipment desk. We used to hand out towels and such, greet folks as they came in, and provide assistance for members. Most of us were health and physical education students and/or athletes.

So we’d chuckle (a little smugly I hate to admit) as the fitness facility would get packed in January: exercise classes full, weight rooms bursting, pool at capacity… Only to go back to normal about four weeks later, as everyone got sick of or frustrated with their New Year’s resolutions.

We would still have our varsity practices, team workouts, and activity classes as part of everyday life, so keeping active and healthy was pretty darn easy. (We all practically lived at the athletics center, so the phrase “Just gonna go work out” was probably the most overused on a daily basis!)

These days, I hear friends with kids, work responsibilities, etc. talk about needing to “get fit” or “eat healthier” or “lose 20 pounds”. It sometimes sounds like a monumental task with everything else going on in their lives.

Then there’s the media. Every magazine or news program has got an article or interview about the next big diet. The next big exercise program. That person who lost 80 pounds! How to get your disorganized life ship-shape! Now! It’s enough to make someone give up, sometimes before even starting. The good news is: It doesn’t have to be.  In fact, making positive changes in your lifestyle is pretty easy.

(No, that’s not a typo!)

Remember the famous line uttered by Neil Armstrong when man first walked on the moon? “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” Well, it’s kind of the same for getting healthier and more active. Little steps make for big – and long-lasting – changes.

Step 1:

What is doable?

There is a solution for every situation.

When I was teaching a class in fitness assessment and program design to senior kinesiology students, one of my favorite parts of the class was role-playing. One student would be the fitness professional. The other student would be the client, with whatever bag of tricks I secretly assigned.  So, as they would sit down and chat, we would observe as the ‘client’ would bring up all the reasons he or she couldn’t exercise: work schedule, young kids, hates crowds, hates the water, sore knees… the list could (and did) go on. It was really cool (I say proudly) to see these students figure out solutions for every situation.  You can too.

For example:

Do you travel a lot? Most hotels have gym facilities, and some can even bring fitness equipment to your room. (That’s what I call room service!) If you’re in a new city, the best place to see the sights is with your tootsies, walking and/or running. Just ask the hotel staff for interesting routes, nice local parks, and safe areas.

When you’re home, many fitness facilities offer ’10 visit’ punch cards, for classes or workouts, so you only have to pay as you go, as opposed to a monthly or yearly plan that you won’t use as much when you’re traveling.

Are you a mom or dad at home with small kids? If you go to your local park, YMCA or other hangout with other parents, you will find some really neat programs for parents and kiddos. You will at least meet other people who want to get active with their kids.

When my kids were babes, I met a couple of other moms in my situation: small baby and “I’m not skipping my walks” Labrador retriever. We ended up meet for walks and hikes several times a week, and became great friends while we were at it!

Are you a homebody? There are so many exercise, pilates, yoga, zumba (I could go on) videos and DVD’s out there. Just pick something that looks fun. So, every situation has room for activity.

Step 2:

What do you like to do?

This is big. You have to enjoy (dare I say love?) what you’re doing – not just the end result.

If you’re trying to get fitter or lose weight, the first place people turn to is ‘the gym’. Whether it’s using treadmills, elliptical, stair climbers, or other aerobic equipment; or weight-training; or doing a fitness class… this is where most people go first when they want to make healthy changes. I’m going to tell you a previously undisclosed secret: I don’t like the gym.  (Ahh… That felt good to get it off my chest!)

So, when I got injured and couldn’t run (or play tennis) last winter, I mentally kicked myself when I kept finding excuses not to go to the gym. (And by the way, I used to like going to the gym and weight-training, years ago, when I was working out with my track team pals, and we were laughing and chatting between every set! Probably a bit too much, but I digress!) 

Some of my friends were swimmers. They loved it, were committed, they were in the pool twice a day many days. Now, many of them have not gone near a pool. The friends who still swim are on Master’s teams, and they love it. What I loved about working out in the gym was the camaraderie. It was the same with my swim buddies.

You need to find activities that you like to do now, regardless of what you’ve done in the past. You can also ask yourself: What attracts me to an activity?

I love tennis. It’s awesome exercise, but when I’m playing, that’s just a fringe benefit. The number 1 thing is, I’m having fun. What do you like to do? What are you willing to try? There are a lot of really cool activity classes out there, just waiting to be your new passion. Do you like to be social after work or on weekends? Classes, running or other sport clubs, hiking groups, dancing… are all great options.

Do you like to have someone to coach or give you guidance? Then a class, being in a sport group with a coach, or hiring a personal trainer are all options. Do you like to work out by yourself? Listen to music? Perhaps those exercise DVD’s.  Or popping on the headphones and working out (as long as it’s safe) may be your thing. I know people who like to listen to podcasts while they run, walk, or pump weights.  When I was injured and wanted to still be exercising most days, I started doing ‘Just Dance’ on our Wii. It was fun! And 30 minutes of dancing was great exercise. (Plus I ended up beating my teenage nephew at all the cool songs at one of our family gatherings… a feat l shamelessly brag about to this day!) Sometimes these days, I even just put on music and move a little more while I’m doing stuff around the house. It all helps.

Step 3:

How can you fit it into your day?

Part of this is your mindset. Activity makes you feel better. If you know and feel that it’s important to be active each day, you’ll do it. If you miss a day, you’ll be right back at it the next. Making activity a priority is a small step that’s big.

The myth that some folks have is that you really need to sweat it out for an hour to have benefits. This is not true. Studies have shown that intermittent exercise has benefits also. One of my favorite professors looked at people exercising (walking) and found that even doing 10 minutes, three times a day provided health benefits. So, you can effectively ‘sneak’ in your exercise if you’re having a busy day or week. Plus it’s a stepping stone. Once you start to feel fitter and healthier, chances are, physical activity will just be more fun. So think about how you can slip exercise into your routine.

If someone wants to meet with you about something at work, suggest a walking meeting. Get away from your desk and outside, even for 10 minutes for lunch. When friends say to me, “Let’s have coffee,” I often suggest, “Let’s walk the dogs!” (My Lab/sidekick loves me for this.)

The other really big (and yet small) deal here is…

Step 4:

How can you tweak your habits?

Step back and take a look at your day. Are you at a computer all day? Do you drive to work or school? Do you watch a lot of t.v. to relax? You can work activity into any day. Really little things add up to big improvements.  For example, do you fidget? You do?  Awesome!

Dr. James Levine, a physician and researcher at the Mayo Clinic, found that people who move more throughout the day - fidget, get up from their chair more often, etc., tend to keep weight off better than people who don’t.  When you move more, it gets your metabolism going a little faster, so you burn a few more calories.  Those add up. Dr. Levine coined the term N.E.A.T. for this process – non-exercise activity thermogenesis. (Drop that term next time you want to impress someone!)

I once saw a fitness professional talking about getting kids more active. He said, “When you’re watching television, get up and do 20 jumping jacks and 20 sit-ups at every commercial break.” I asked my (active and keen) kids if they would do this. They kind of laughed as they said very simply, “Uh, no.” And I get that.  For them, watching television is relaxation time.

When I watch t.v. or a movie, I don’t want to get up and do jumping jacks either. If you are keen to, I think it’s great. Again, it’s got to be something that you are willing to do, one day, one week, one month, a few months after you start.  But we do get up and move around a couple of times if we’re watching a movie. We get up to grab a drink, stretch, help make some (healthy) popcorn. We don’t sit in front of a screen for long periods of time, and that’s an easy habit to build on. Making movement a regular and consistent part of your day - a habit - makes you feel good.

What are some other habits?

- Make it a habit to bring healthy food/snacks to work or school. Easy stuff, like almonds, sunflower seeds, healthy muffins, cheese, dried apricots or other fruit, healthy granola, etc. are easy to store and snack on.

- Don’t let yourself go a long time between meals or healthy snacks.

In studies of people who ate an iso-caloric diet (just the right amount of calories so they should not gain or lose weight) those who ate their daily calories spread out over a few ‘meals’ actually lost weight. They also had better control of their appetites. Those who ate all their calories in one meal, gained weight, and felt hungry. So you want to spread them out.

- Have a bottle for water, so you don’t go running for the sugary stuff. (I like to put lime in mine.)

- Find some healthy options in what you’re eating. Even with fast food, there are tons of healthier choices these days.  I’m the sugar and chocolate queen. I mean, when I was a kid, my brothers and I would coat our cereal so that it was literally glistening. If you cut down the amount of sugar you eat bit by bit, after a while, you don’t crave it as much. (And by the way, my cereal is way duller looking… in a good way! Now I use yogurt and berries to jazz it up.)

- With any new recipe I look up online, I insert ‘healthy’ in front of it. You’d be surprised at the healthy options to get great taste.

- Eat breakfast. Even if it’s something quick, like a banana or a smoothie, it kick starts your metabolism and gets your engine running for the day.

- If you’re at a computer, get up and stand up (wasn’t there a Bob Marley song that said that?!), particularly when you need to think about something. I do this all the time. (I just did.) I swear it makes you think better.

There are so many kabillion (I know, not a real word) ways that you can make little changes. And trust me, they will add up to the big stuff. Just remember, when you feel like a million bucks… it all started with one.