Whether it is adding healthy habits or subtracting the unhealthy ones, changing our behavior for the better can be really hard. International Mind Body Wellness Day is on the first Tuesday of 2023, and it is the perfect day to start down the path of wellness. Not with all healthy choices and no unhealthy choices, that is impossible. Instead, we can pick one or two very easy actions to begin with to change your world for the better.
Small steps work best, and large ones tend not to work at all, so the first ones should not be so strenuous that they require any more effort than your normal daily activity. Motivating yourself to do a strenuous activity multiple times each week is actually very difficult. Lifting one dumbbell once for the first time is harder than a routine two hour workout, so remember that and give yourself credit, congratulations, or any other reward. The most important thing to remember when beginning is not to try anything you don’t think you can finish. Being able to train so much that you’re too tired to go on comes many months into the process and should be welcome.
The hard part is consistency, which is what makes small steps count as much as big steps. Just one small step one time doesn’t matter, there needs to be a routine. Let’s take a look at some of the first steps to change your life, improve health, and to reliably form healthy habits.
Set the exercise bar so low it’s on the ground
Start exercise with something that doesn’t really require physical effort, just mental effort. Always talk to your doctor before starting an exercise practice, but most will agree that exercise is without a doubt one of the most healthy activities you can add to your life. Your eventual goal should be the US Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendation of 5 exercise sessions a week for 30 minutes each time, but keep in mind they also say “the risk of all-cause mortality begins to decrease even with small additions of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.”
However, working out is always uncomfortable and often painful. Even people with a steady workout routine feel discomfort and pain, but those sensations are welcome when associated with physical fitness. Getting to a similar mindset is possible for anyone, we just need the right motivation and circumstances to get started. Some workout routines will even start with no weight at all and only add a few pounds each session so you can learn form and practice the routine without hurting yourself. Here’s how you can get going:
- Pick three or so very easy activities like lifting a 5 pound dumbbell once, doing one lunge, walking briskly around a large room once, holding a yoga pose for a count of 10, or reaching down (bending your knees slightly) and touching your toes once. The whole routine should take no more than 2 minutes. This will be your first workout routine.
- Do your routine once a day at least three times over one week, and take a break between workout days to recover. Twice during the week and once on the weekends works, remembering that it should take practically no physical effort, at the beginning all of the effort is mental.
- The second week do the routine two times in a row on three separate days, taking a recovery day between. Pick two weekdays and a weekend day.
- The third week go for three routines in a row on three separate days. If you feel like it you can add in a fourth workout day, possibly two days in a row.
- The fourth week is four routines in a row, targeting around 10 minutes of activity, and try to do them five times in a week, but four is good, too. At this point recovery days will feel necessary.
- Each week add more repetitions of the routine until it takes you 30 minutes. Doing that 5 times a week will bring the benefits of exercise. If you can get it to 60 minute sessions you meet the best guidelines.
Exactly how intense each session needs to be is different for each person, but the US Health and Human Services guidelines says that if sitting is 0 and maximum effort is 10, a 5 or 6 is considered moderate exercise. Vigorous exercise is expending effort over 7 and counts for twice as much.
Don’t do too much unless you’re sure it’s best for you because too much too fast can sap motivation and possibly cause injury. Regardless, by the end of the fourth week you should be a person who exercises four times a week and has a solid and expandable routine. Good job!
Walk but not too far
One study found that every 2,000 steps reduces your risk of a cardiac event by 10% up to 10,000 steps. Walking around can get us to 5 or 6 on the effort scale and confer significant cardiovascular and other health benefits.
10,000 steps is quite a lot, it’s about 5 miles or 8 kilometers, but fortunately you don’t have to do it all at once. It can be a good idea to get a step-counting app or other device so you know how many steps you would need to add. As always, it is very important to start small and not overwhelm yourself physically, the mental effort is enough at the beginning. Otherwise being sore or uncomfortable can get in the way of motivation.
After you know how many steps you are usually taking, try increasing it to the next 1,000 steps a day each week, which is adding around 10 minutes of walking. If you walk 1,200, go for 2,000. If you walk 3,000, go for 4,000. After a few months you’ll hit that 10,000 step mark and all the healthiness that results.
The average step is about 18 inches or one and a half feet, so here are a few easy ways to add steps during the day:
- One walk around the average New York city block (264 by 900 feet) takes about ten minutes and is 1,500 steps.
- A minute of brisk walking around the building or indoors while food is heating is about 100 steps.
- We walk slower when tapping on our phones, but walking while talking is an easy way to grab a few more steps, even pacing indoors is a good idea.
- Drink a lot of water, each trip to the bathroom is more steps.
- Set a timer for 5-minute walking breaks during the day.
- If weight loss is a goal, you burn 2-3 times as many calories stepping up stairs.
- Consider how you can add a few steps when traveling anywhere- park further away, get off one stop early, walk to school, walk to the store, or walk to work.
If you add about 10 minutes of walking a day or 1,000 steps, within a few months you’ll be a prolific walker who is healthier as a result. Good job!
Just one glass of water
A glass of 16 ounces or half liter of water before coffee, tea, or food in the morning is a simple start to the day and confers a surprising degree of health benefits. Most of us have access to clean water and can easily add this activity to our mornings. This one is never physically difficult, but does require mental effort to undertake and to keep going.
To motivate this change, think about how just one glass of water can help with:
- Dehydration occurs overnight as water evaporates from our bodies and can cause low energy, mental impairment, and a bad mood.
- Increase metabolism and prime your body for weight loss by drinking cool water that your body must warm up, which increases metabolic rate by as much as 30%.
- Suppress the craving for morning snacking by loading your belly with water, which reduces hunger.
Now you are drinking a whole glass of water first thing in the morning, and you will find yourself with more energy, a better metabolism, and more control over any questionably healthy morning foods that you enjoy. Good job!
Go to the kitchen twice
More than half of us lead sedentary lifestyles characterized by many hours of inactivity, regardless of if we live in developed or less developed nations, and many of us have health problems as a result. Fortunately a few minutes of activity each hour can help to counteract the effect of a moderately sedentary lifestyle. This can be different for different people depending on how sitting, light activity, and exercise is balanced.
People who spend 7 or less hours a day sitting can more or less cancel out the health effects of sitting with about 30 minutes of exercise a day, but those of us who sit for 10 hours can’t exercise it away. Instead, short movement breaks can have a huge impact.
Let’s take a look at a few ways to think about how to balance being sedentary, light activity, and exercise. Sedentary behavior is sitting and not walking around while working on a computer, watching TV, or similar non-physical activity. Light activity is not exercise but is walking, cleaning, gardening, or other active behaviors. Exercise consists of activities that make you out of breath or sweaty. Looking very closely at one article that carefully analyzed the effects of balancing these three behaviors using several different studies shows us how to balance properly.
- Assuming 8 hours of sleep, the “average” person spends about 76% or 12 hours of their waking hours sedentary, 24% or about 4 hours doing light activity and less than 1% or 2 minutes doing exercise. This contributes to 9% of annual deaths worldwide.
- The suggested ideal for most of us according to the study is to sit less than seven hours and get 30 mins of exercise, which reduces the unhealthy impact by 80%. That’s about 44% sedentary, 53% light activity, and 3% exercise.
- However, they also note that exercise can only help so much, more than 30 mins doesn’t add any reduction in the unhealthy impact of being sedentary. You can’t make up extra sitting with extra exercise. If you sit for ten hours (600 minutes) a day, the impact can only be reduced by 40%.
- The good news is that the first five minutes of exercise offer around half of the benefit, and the first 15 minutes give you 70-90% of the benefit. Then when you replace sitting with light activity makes each minute counts that much more.
- In addition to exercise, try to add light activity to the day, take extra trips to the kitchen or bathroom, stand up and walk around for 5 mins. Replacing 5 mins in each hour of sitting with light activity can turn 10 hours of sitting into 9 hours of sitting.
Now you can be sure to move your body for 5-10 minutes each out to counteract a lot of the unhealthy parts of sitting. Good job!
Don’t do anything
Being sedentary isn’t all bad, and in fact can be very important for a healthy lifestyle with the right mental tools. Meditation might be the first thing that comes to mind for many of us, but it’s not the only way to sit with yourself and get healthier just by thinking.
- Gratitude exercises involve spending a few minutes each day feeling thankful for things in your life. At least one study indicates that writing or thinking long-form ideas about what you are thankful for works better than listing out positive qualities in your life. To try for yourself, take time five times a week to write or think about something you are grateful for and why. After about three weeks you might feel the effects like less anxiety and an improved sense of well-being.
- Mindfulness-based meditation has a lot of research behind it saying it can change how your brain processes emotions and help manage stress, immune function, sleep, and many other important things. Even short mindfulness practices can increase oxytocin, a hormone indicative of low stress. Find an app or website you like and start with just 5 minutes a day and work your way up from there.
- Enjoying silence is most important when healing, but also is important when you are busy. Workers that moved to open-plan offices with few quiet spaces felt more distraction, more stress, and less satisfaction with their environment. Depending on your situation silence may not be possible, though try to seek it out if you can.
Now you can just sit down almost anywhere and get healthier by thinking about gratitude, mindfulness, or just enjoying the silence. Good job!
Put your phone down
The colors, motion, sounds, and little red numbers are all specifically designed to offer psychological rewards when using your smartphone. In this way they were designed to be addictive. Smartphone addiction is insidious because they have legitimate uses yet exploit mental weaknesses we may have. The use of social media in particular is thought to have a negative impact not just on mood but also on academic and job performance.
The best ways to take a step back from the phone is, like the rest of this article, to take small steps consistently. Here are a few that could work.
- No phones in the bedroom is always a good habit to prevent late-night scrolling and the sleep-disrupting effects of the screen.
- Do something that doesn’t require a phone, like art or sports, and leave the phone in a difficult spot like a locker or in bag on the other side of the room. Both art and sports have been effective in formal smartphone intervention therapies.
- Turn off all notifications so your phone isn’t calling you over.
- Remove habit-forming apps. If there is an app that you find yourself constantly using, try deleting it and using a desktop computer to browse the same information.
- Just pick one thing above, reducing too much too quickly can lead to binging later.
By using your phone less you’ll sleep better and maybe even feel better about yourself. And you should because you put in a lot of effort into putting that phone down, good job!