Humans are very good at picking out big goals with the best of intentions and then struggling when it comes to sticking with them. Instead of giving yourself a mountain to climb (maybe an actual mountain, if that’s your thing), start off with something manageable. These five small changes are the first steps to eventually making those long-term targets for your health. Just don’t try to do them all at once.
1. Exercise 20 minutes more a week
Forget what phys ed class taught you: Your version of working out doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. Meghan Stevenson is a certified running coach with the Road Runners of America and founder of virtual training website Your Best Run, whose focus is helping individuals meet their personal goals. “I started my running journey almost 15 years ago with just walking,” Stevenson explains. “I built up from 20 minutes to 90 minutes. When I got bored, I started running. Now I’ve completed marathons, and I run an average of 30 miles each week!” Whether you want to eventually build up to marathons or just want to make running a habit, Stevenson recommends combining running and walking to start. “Twenty minutes is fine!” she encourages. “Schedule it into your calendar like you would lunch with a friend or a meeting at work.”
It doesn’t have to be running: Greg Pignataro, a certified strength and conditioning specialist at Grindset Fitness, says that you don’t even have to go to a gym to start your workout routine. “There are plenty of great exercises that don’t require any equipment and can be done in the comfort of your own home,” he tells us. “A five-minute routine of bodyweight-only exercises performed once a day can be a wonderful catalyst for positive change.” Skipping the hassle of going to the gym can help with the mental leap required to force yourself to work out, he explains. If you do want to go to a gym but are worried about other people judging you, Pignataro reassures us, “You’re not alone! However, between checking themselves out in the mirrors and fretting that someone is judging them, hardly anyone is judging you!”
2. Cut out one cigarette a day
Smokers already know that quitting cigarettes is one of the best ways to improve their health. Licensed clinical social worker Heather Senior Monroe, director of program development at Newport Academy, confirms that people who cut down their cigarette usage can look forward to “improved lung capacity; better blood circulation; stronger immune system; enhanced sense of smell and sense of taste; and reduced risk of gum disease, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic bronchitis.”
Of course, smokers also know that it’s one of the hardest habits to kick. Reducing your cigarette use by one a day (then two, then three, etc.) is one way to try. “Quitting slow and steady gives a person a much smaller goal to focus on, which is a lot easier for some people to do compared to cutting down quickly or even going cold turkey,” says Cedrina L. Calder, MD, a preventive medicine doctor in Nashville, TN. “Also, cutting back slowly may work better for someone who is not using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), as it may allow their body to get better adjusted to receiving less nicotine if they slowly reduce the amount over a period of time.”
However, there are some potential drawbacks to quitting cigarettes slowly. “Some people may not actually end up quitting,” Calder cautions. “They may cut down and start smoking less but still struggle to quit.” To refocus your goal, Natasha Bhuyan, MD, a family medicine doctor with One Medical, recommends, “Try setting a final quit date. Write it down and stick it up on your bathroom mirror — it helps to have a goal to work toward, and a recurring reminder will offer you that daily nudge to stay on track.” And give yourself help. “Speak with your doctor about smoking cessation programs, which will help with medication management as well as behavioral therapy and will increase your chance of successfully quitting,” Calder advises.
3. Eat one more fruit or vegetable a day
Instead of restricting what you eat, try introducing more fruits and vegetables. “Think in terms of adding nutrition to your diet rather than taking it out,” encourages Alyssa Lavy, registered dietitian, certified dietitian nutritionist, and owner of Alyssa Lavy Nutrition & Wellness. “Consider how to add vegetables to increase your nutrient intake, rather than using them as a way to decrease calories or replace a food that has a completely different nutrient value.” She recommends following your taste buds: “While someone may love bananas, someone else may not be able to stand them, so it’s best to think about which fruit or vegetable you would be open to incorporating into your diet.”
See it as a chance to get creative! “I always encourage clients to add a new food to one that they love, so that the new food is mixed with something familiar,” Lavy suggests. “For example, if you love mashed potatoes, perhaps add broccoli to them, or try including zucchini ‘zoodles’ in your pasta dish with sauce. Once that food becomes more familiar, preparing it in a variety of ways is helpful, because you may love a certain vegetable raw or roasted, but you may hate it steamed.” Healthy eating just got interesting!
4. Have one fewer drink a week
The line between a safe and fun amount of alcohol and heavy drinking that can lead to addiction is a lot narrower than many people realize. “For women, heavy drinking is more than three drinks a day or more than seven drinks a week, and for men it is more than four drinks a day or more than 14 drinks a week,” explains Indra Cidambi, MD, medical director at the Center for Network Therapy in New Jersey. If you can stick to those limits long-term, you’ll experience better sleep, clearer skin, a reduced risk of breast cancer, and more energy, and you’ll potentially reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
If going teetotal for a full month or longer is too much for you, try saying no to one or two drinks each week. “The benefits of this slow and steady method is that total abstinence is not the immediate goal, and it gives the person time to introduce other fun activities to substitute for alcohol,” says Cidambi. She recommends looking at why you’re drinking more than is good for you: “If it’s due to boredom or lack of alternate activities, try finding different hobbies. If it’s your choice of friends, try expanding your social circle.” That said, as with smoking, some people will find reducing alcohol in this slow way harder than others. “For some, perfect moderation may be harder to achieve than total abstinence,” Cidambi admits. If you regularly find yourself on the “all” side of all or nothing, it might be a good idea to see your doctor for extra advice.
5. Sleep 30 minutes longer every night
Make this the year you finally get that early bedtime your sleepy body has been calling for. “Everyone out there should be getting between seven and nine hours of sleep each night,” asserts Bill Fish, a certified sleep science coach and founder of sleep website Tuck.com. “Sleep is now considered the third pillar of wellness to go along with diet and exercise.” And slow and steady works best. “Gradually change your bedtime by even as little at 10 minutes per night,” recommends Fish. “Set a reminder that will alert you at least 45 minutes before you want to be asleep. Give your body and mind time to decompress to ensure you are ready to get to sleep, whether that is with a warm shower, 15 minutes of a good book, some meditation, or any other ritual.”
An extra 30 minutes of sleep might not seem like a lot, but it can really help. Therapist, licensed social worker, and owner of Bright Spot Counseling Ginger Houghton says, “An increase of around 30 minutes of sleep for several nights in a row can help reduce daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and tension. If you can inch closer to an hour of additional sleep for a few consistent nights, studies show an increase in attention span and improved performance and response times. Additionally, people who are getting the right amount of sleep are also less prone to moodiness, binge-eating, and accidents.” When it comes to self-improvement, you can’t rush perfection.