“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  This ancient Chinese proverb came to mind with my last blogpost.  For real changes in diet and exercise don’t come easily.  A single step won’t transform your routines, but that single step can certain open the doorway to bigger changes that last.  I condense here some thoughts on how and why those single steps, however small, aid in transformation.

First, setting out to change one small thing in your overall routine does not rule out making bigger changes if you wish.  The small change by itself, though, has more power than you might think.  You’re more likely to succeed in making and sticking with that small change, for starters.  And that builds your confidence and reinforces your belief in yourself, however subtly.

Also, the change itself will have some benefits that count.  It’s better to walk to the mailbox than stay put at your desk, for example, even if this doesn’t equal an hour at the gym.   Further, once a change becomes a habit, adding another small change, and then maybe another, becomes easier.  Before you know it, you might have trouble even remembering your older ways.  If you’ve ever switched from whole milk to lowfat, to take one example, you may note how your tastes did indeed change over time.

What kinds of small changes might you try?  Here are a few of hundreds of possibilities:

*add two servings of cooked greens to your weekly diet
*add 30 minutes extra exercise to your week (or 15 mins)
*make dinner at home one additional evening per week
*bring your lunch to work 1 (or more) days per week
*switch to reduced or low fat dairy products
*add three extra vegetable servings to your weekly diet
*switch to whole grain bread or pasta
*reduce your daily calorie intake by 100
*do floor exercises at home one or two times per week
*join an exercise class and commit to it for one class cycle
*reduce the number of unhealthy snack foods you keep at home by half
*if you eat out at lot, eliminate one time per week
*meditate or  do relaxation exercises twice per week
*put a cap on butter or mayonnaise in your diet—
  say no more than a pat or small spoonful per day
*initiate a family walk after dinner once a week

Once you target that one change, give it a week, or ideally two or three, before you decide if you can live with it.  If you don’t think you can, choose another.  If it’s going well enough, keep it up another week or two or three and then reevaluate.  If you mess up a day or a week, simply restart.  At some point, you’ll find you’ve got a new habit or routine in place.  Remember, it can take weeks or even months for some changes to feel natural and automatic.  Allow yourself that time to adjust.  Then you’ve got a new “normal”.

Recent research supports the “one small thing” strategy as a door-opener to bigger change.   The strategy by itself, for those who need to lose weight especially,  won’t necessarily lead directly to melted pounds.  This is particularly true if you’ve carried extra weight for a while.  For many, dieting has caused the metabolism to slow down and actually conserve weight.  This is discouraging, and points to the need for much more radical habit change for weight to budge.

But the one small change can prepare the body and mind for more and bigger changes in time.  If you start skipping a dessert, say, or bringing your lunches to work more often, or substituting eggs for breakfast donuts, the value may not necessarily lie in immediate pounds lost.  Getting used to these ways, though, will make the next change, and the next, easier to do and more likely to happen.  The same holds true with exercise.   Start with that one day’s walk, and you’re more likely to add other activity in time.

This is good news.  We may be hard-wired to overeat certain foods or to hang onto unhealthy weight.  But we have some ability to forge new habit pathways in our brains—and that leads to better choices and better self-care in the end.  So:  if you need drastic changes, prepare yourself.  Get help in weathering the hard transitions.   But if you’re not ready or able to do so….definitely start with that one small thing.