One Small Change

Whether you need to eat more vegetables, read more books or quit spreading yourself so thin, it’s time to realize that making one small change in your life can actually make all the difference in the world.

 

It’s that time again. You flip the calendar to a fresh, new year and think, ‘this is the year I’m going to do it’—whatever that “it” may be.

Quit smoking. Be more grateful. Eat better. Stop overcommitting.

Admit it. This isn’t the first year you’ve had the desire to change, but why is it so hard to make something good for you into a habit? It only takes a few weeks to form a habit, right?

Wrong.

Psychologist Jeremy Dean, in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, explains why that’s not usually the case.

Dean notes that there’s no solid evidence for the commonly held belief that it takes 21 days to form a habit and that this figure is likely a considerable underestimation.

He references a study from University College London, which recruited 96 people interested in forming a new habit. The study found that skipping a single day wasn’t detrimental, but early repetitions gave the biggest boost in an action eventually becoming habitual. Researchers discovered that the amount of time for the new activity to become “automatic” varied greatly—anywhere from 18 to 254 days. On average, it took 66 days before participants formed a habit.

In other words, go easy on yourself and don’t expect dramatic changes to occur quickly. Once you know it may take two months or longer to create that good-for-you habit, your expectations become more realistic.

“When we set goals that are too ambitious, we can set ourselves up for failure and not want to try again. It’s better to start with small steps—one step at a time—and achieve some success. We can gradually make the goals more challenging, and before you know it, the small steps can turn into large leaps,” observes Marcia Morris, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Florida Student Health Care Center in Gainesville. Morris is the author of the new book The Campus Cure: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students, available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble.

Morris says that when working with patients, she helps them choose goals that are challenging but also attainable. For example, someone with social anxiety disorder might have extreme difficulty talking with someone he or she does not know. For this individual, a party or business meeting can be excruciating. Morris coaches that person to start increasing social interaction in small, safe ways, such as making small talk with the cashier at the grocery store.

“New challenges can be added every week,” she says, “and in time, the person will be comfortable making a presentation in front of a group. You have to start with small steps when you want to achieve big changes.”

Although there may be multiple areas in your life where you’d like to make a change, don’t attempt a complete overhaul at once. The key to success is one step at a time. Establish one positive habit—however long it may take—before tackling another.

Ready for a change? We’ve rounded up some inspiration, so pick one and get started.

Learn To Say “No”

If you constantly find yourself overcommitted, even to positive things like helping with your kids’ school events, it’s time you learned to say “no” more often—with a smile, of course.

A study in the Journal of Consumer Research revealed that saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” made it easier for participants to excuse themselves from unwanted commitments. “I can’t” sounds like an excuse and “I don’t” implies conviction and personal boundaries. The key is realizing that you’re the only person responsible for setting your own boundaries, and you aren’t responsible for anyone else’s reactions.

Your daughter’s teacher may be disappointed you’re not bringing four dozen homemade cupcakes, but her reaction is not your responsibility.

More Kindness, Please

Exercise your “compassion muscles” by incorporating acts of kindness into your life on a regular basis. Not only will you help others, but you’ll feel better, too. Yep, being kind actually has proven health benefits.

Acts of kindness release the hormone oxytocin, which in turn releases the chemical nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels and can protect the heart by lowering blood pressure. Oxytocin also reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system.

Research from Emory University revealed that being kind to others makes the pleasure and reward centers in your own brain light up, which is often referred to as the “helper’s high.”

A University of British Columbia study took a group of highly anxious people and asked them to perform at least six acts of kindness per week. Study participants experienced significant improvement in just one month: more positive moods, relationship satisfaction and even a decrease in social avoidance in those who were typically socially anxious.

Being kind may even help you live longer. People 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations have a 44 percent lower likelihood of dying early.

Ditch Tobacco For Good

If you’ve tried to quit before, you’re not alone. A Gallup poll showed that 85 percent of smokers have tried to quit at least once, and 45 percent have tried at least three times.

There’s a very good reason it’s so hard to give up tobacco, and it’s called nicotine. This chemical naturally found in tobacco has more people under its addictive hold than any other drug in America.

Smoking can shorten your life by as much as 14 years, not to mention the cost of tobacco itself and related health problems.

Although some people manage to quit cold turkey, this doesn’t work for the majority. The following treatments/methods have been proven effective for people who want to quit using tobacco:

  • Counseling (telephone, individual or group)
  • Advice from health care professionals
  • Treatment and support via cell phone
  • Behavioral therapies
  • Nicotine replacement products (patch, gum, lozenge, inhaler and nasal spray)
  • Non-nicotine prescription medication

Pile On The Fruits And Veggies

We’re supposed to fill two-thirds of the plate with veggies, but honestly, when was the last time you did that?

Someone consuming 2,000 calories a day should have four to five servings of veggies a day and the same number of servings of fruits. (If that sounds like entirely too much to you, this is a sign you’re skimping on these important food groups!)

One serving is a cup of raw, leafy vegetables or a medium fruit the size of a baseball. Just a half cup of raw or cooked veggies or fruit counts, too, as does half a cup of vegetable or fruit juice.

Get inventive, especially if you have children. Make it a point to try a new fruit or vegetable every week or so. Grocery stores often have recipes featuring ways to enjoy unusual produce. African cucumber, anyone?

Read A Book (Or Two Or Three…)

One in four Americans doesn’t read books at all, and of those who do, half read fewer than four books a year. Even more disturbing, the reading ability of the average American is only at an eighth- or ninth-grade level.

The best way to improve those dismal statistics? Read more! A study conducted at Emory University found that reading a novel can improve brain function on multiple levels, so for the sake of a healthy brain, pick up a book, and then another, and then another.

If you find digital books more appealing, all the better. A Pew Research study discovered that people who read on a tablet device read more books per year.

Get In A (Healthy) Eating Rut

You don’t have to be infinitely creative in order to eat healthy, so don’t feel bad about regularly eating the same meal or snack—so long as it’s good for you.

In fact, research proves that this is a secret of many people who successfully maintain long-term weight loss. So, if you’ve found a handful of healthy dishes and snacks that work for you, stick to them. Just put the recipes into a rotation so you don’t get bored, and if you come across others that are appealing and healthy, add them in.

For example, if an egg white omelet with veggies and whole wheat toast has become your morning routine, there’s no need to change it up.

There’s enough pressure in life.

Drink More Water

The average adult male’s body contains 60 percent water, while the female body contains approximately 55 percent water. Your brain, however, is about 70 percent water, which not only protects it, but promotes normal function. Because your brain itself can’t store water, it requires hydration throughout the day.

People often complain that they don’t drink more water because they hate going to the bathroom frequently, but that’s a small price to pay for a well-hydrated brain.

Prolonged dehydration literally shrinks the size of brain cells. Even slight dehydration adds to confusion, difficulty focusing and short-term memory loss. There’s also a troubling link between dehydration and dementia. As we age, our bodies tend to lose the “trigger” that says, “I’m thirsty.” So an older person struggling with memory loss not only doesn’t feel thirsty but can actually forget they need to drink.

Hydration is also a factor in recovery after stroke. Research shows that about 60 percent of people are dehydrated at the time of having a stroke. Effects from the stroke worsened or stayed the same in 42 percent of the dehydrated patients after being hospitalized, as compared to just 17 of well-hydrated patients.

Not sure you’re properly hydrated? Take a glance in the toilet. Urine that is colorless or pale yellow is usually a sign your fluid intake is adequate.

There are numerous methods—some more complicated than others—on calculating how much water you should drink. Here’s one of the simplest: Your weight divided by 2 = the minimum ounces of water you should drink per day

Water in food counts toward your daily water intake, so that serving of watermelon or the big salad you have for lunch is a help.

Move More, Sit Less

If regular exercise is already part of your routine, you know how much better you feel when you’re active. But if you’re among the 80 percent of Americans who don’t get the recommended amount of exercise, make this the year you change that statistic.

Physical exercise benefits virtually every part of your body, including your brain. Researchers at Stanford found that not only does exercise give an immediate boost to your cognitive skills, but regular exercise (especially between the ages of 25 and 45) decreases the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Look for ways to incorporate physical activity into your regular day. Everything from gardening to vacuuming can become aerobic if done long enough and vigorously enough to increase your heart and respiratory rates and, hopefully, break a sweat.

The Department of Health and Human Services advises that healthy adults get:

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week; or
  • 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly; and
  • Strength training for all major muscle groups two times a week or more.

Don’t cram all that exercise into one session or two. You’ll get more benefits—not to mention feel less sore—if you break it down into at least 30 minutes of activity five days a week.

Have a job that keeps you on your butt? Take frequent breaks throughout the day to stand up, stretch and walk around. Doctors say that even if you exercise, the more hours a day you spend sitting, the higher your risk of metabolic issues.

Express Gratitude

Being grateful—and showing it—not only makes you feel better, it goes a long way toward strengthening relationships, both personal and professional.

Make it a point to acknowledge the things people do to make your life easier, better and happier. And don’t just think your thanks, speak it.

Take a few minutes to get the family together—over dinner is a great time—and ask everyone to share at least one thing they’re grateful for that day. (And no fair critiquing the comments. If your 6 year old says he’s grateful you didn’t make lima beans tonight, just smile and roll with it.)

If someone has gone out of their way for you, expressing your gratitude in written form is always appropriate. A note thanking that person for what they’ve done will do their heart good—and yours, too.

 

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