Improve your health one day at a time

Small changes are the key to seeing big results, says counsellor and coach Sally Brown

Why do we find it so hard to stick to regular exercise, even when we know it helps reduce stress, boost mood and self-esteem, improve concentration, sleep and energy levels, and reduce aches and pains? Like 26 percent of 34 to 54-year-old respondents in the 2016 Philips Future Health Index survey, it’s easy to blame lack of time, but as the average adult in the Western world spends 24-hours a week watching TV and nearly three hours a day on tablets or smart phones, is it how we prioritize our time that is the real stumbling block? Those aged over 55 were perhaps being more honest when they named ‘lack of motivation’ as the biggest barrier.

The truth is that the majority of us who set exercise or health improvement goals don’t achieve them, which can be especially frustrating if you’re a motivated and conscientious type who has no trouble meeting demanding deadlines and targets at work. ‘I knew I needed to lose 14lbs (6kg), but despite being a focused, determined person, I failed at every diet I embarked on,’ says Jane Lincoln, 55, a director in the non-profit sector. ‘It was so frustrating – I’d start full of enthusiasm, living off juices or cutting carbs, then give up after a week. It wasn’t until I started to make small, daily changes to my life, like walking more, cutting portion-size, not having bread with meals, and cutting out alcohol in the week, that the weight finally came off and stayed off.’

Set mini-goals

What Jane discovered is that simple tweaks to daily life that you can make today and sustain in the long-term are the key to making lasting change. Setting mini-goals – small but meaningful change to your daily habits, as simple as only eating when you’re sitting down or squeezing in an extra 20 minutes of brisk walking – might not feel as exciting as making sweeping changes, but it’s more sustainable. This is the philosophy behind an increasing number of goal-setting apps, such as HabitBull, Streaks and Productive, designed to tap into the satisfaction we get from logging small, daily achievements such as drinking an extra glass of water, or doing 10 minutes of meditation a day.

Tiny changes are more likely to become daily habit, things we do on auto-pilot, without using up valuable reserves of willpower. Deciding to go to the gym for an hour a day, for instance, is great if you’ve got plenty of time on your hands. But in a busy life, exercise is often the first thing that drops off the to-do list. But what’s more achievable is ‘piggybacking’ exercise onto something you already do regularly, like your journey to work. ‘I had a lightbulb moment one day when I realized I got on a train to get to a gym to sit on an exercise bike!’ says Laurie McAllister, 25, a marketing executive. ‘If I used the bike as my main form of transport, I could cut out the gym, and save about an hour a day. I now cycle to and from work every day, saving me around £100 a month in travel and gym costs, and I’m fitter than I have ever been.’

It’s important to be specific. Rather than resolving to ‘be slimmer by summer,’ decide specifically what you’re going to change: is it when you eat, your snacking habits, how you plan and shop for food, or how much you move? Then think, what’s an easy, small change you could realistically stick to? Make sure it’s achievable and limited. So rather than ‘cut out all sugar’, try resolving to ‘stop eating cakes and biscuits in the office.’

Trigger new healthy habits with existing cues

Habits are triggered by specific cues, like reading your email (habit) when you sit down at your computer (cue). And research shows cues can be deliberately created. So think about something you do regularly and tag an element of exercise to it, like walking to the farthest rather than the nearest coffee shop at lunchtime. It may be hard to think it makes a difference, but studies show just a 10-minute walk gives you an endorphin hit that lifts your energy levels for up to two hours afterwards. Decide to do ten push-ups or five minutes of stretches before you sit down to watch TV in the evening, and you will improve your strength and flexibility far more than doing a ‘weekly’ gym or yoga class that in reality, you get to once or twice a month.

Tiny changes like this may seem ridiculously easy, but that’s the point – they’re achievable without having to reorganize your life, so you’re far more likely to keep them up long enough for them to become a habit. Your aim is to find ways to make change as effortless as possible. It may help to set push notifications on your mobile or via an app to prompt you. A selection of health apps, such as Stand Up, will tell you when you’ve been sitting down too long. Apple’s new Bedtime feature in the Clock app will calculate your optimum bedtime and buzz you when it’s time to turn in. Or if you want to reduce stress, the Headspace app allows you to set regular reminders to simply stop, pause and breathe.

Small changes to achieve big goals

Big changes place big demands on our willpower and research has shown that willpower is a limited resource that is easily exhausted, which is why we eventually fail, no matter how determined we are to succeed. Habits have lasting power when they become automatic, something we do on autopilot, like brushing our teeth last thing at night. To become automatic, we need to do something often, and we’re more likely to do this with small changes.

Tempting as it may be to make lots of mini-changes, you’ll get the best results if you focus on two changes at a time, and allow six to eight weeks before you take on any new ones. Once a mini-change feels like it’s becoming a habit, you can introduce a new one.

Positive thinking

It’s also vital to identify your motivation for making the change and frame it positively. The human brain hates to feel deprived so your natural instinct may be to rebel against a resolution to ‘cut out eating biscuits at work’. But by re-framing your change as a positive choice, such as, ‘I get more pleasure if I save my sweet tooth for a treat I really enjoy’, or ‘I get much more enjoyment from my meals when I have a good appetite,’ you get a constant reminder of the benefits.

Focus on the benefit that a change delivers today. So if you want to lose weight and you make a decision to simply ‘stop eating after 8pm every day’, you won’t get slim on day one, but chances are you will notice immediate benefits to your digestion and sleep quality, as well as a boost in your feelings of self-control.

For some people, the best motivation is tapping into their competitive streak, and many health apps are wising up to the benefits of ‘gamification’ – mixing self-monitoring and entertainment. Ayogo.com assigns you daily activities, games and surveys to complete, designed to help you manage health conditions such as diabetes. If you prefer more tangible rewards, sign up to an app that allows you to earn discounts on healthy lifestyle brands every time you tick off a goal, like Mango Health or Pact.

Scientists have found that only 10 per cent of our happiness comes from our life circumstances, whereas a whopping 40 per cent comes from our daily habits,

As Aristotle put it so succinctly: ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.’ So ask yourself, are your daily habits working for you, or against you?


Sally Brown

About the author

Sally Brown

Sally Brown is a counselor and therapeutic coach working in private practice (www.therapythatworks.co.uk), and Executive Specialist for Communications for the Coaching Division of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. She has also been a journalist for over 20 years, holding several senior editorial positions within the national press, including section editor of the Sunday Times, and is the author of six self-help books.


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