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Size matters: Why starting small may be the key to lasting change

It’s safe to say that the majority of people who embarked on a new year’s resolution this year have now returned to their old habits, their new ones just didn’t seem to stick. Whether it was embarking on a new exercise regime or a new-fangled diet plan, by the end of January some 80% of people will have simply given up on the idea that they can change for the better. Part of the reason for that abysmal success rate, is that people often try to do too much too soon. They go big, when they should have started small.

For example, imagine you wanted to kick-start the New Year with a new exercise routine. There are some basic things people tend to get wrong from the outset. Many people tend to approach behaviour change like a sprint – they go all in, as they want a quick fix e.g. to lose a few pounds or an inch off their waste. Only, the behaviour they adopt is unsustainable. They don’t start with the end in mind. Simultaneously people tend to have an all or nothing mindset, either they’re ‘all in’ or they are ‘all out’. When they inevitably fail to keep up with the impossible exercise schedule, they have set for themselves, rather than reassess, they stop all together. The people who successfully change their behaviour permanently, are those who start small and don’t fret too much if they mess up from time to time. They become more interested in the process than an arbitrary end goal.

If we think about dieting. People unfortunately tend to make similar mistakes. They assume a diet is a temporary thing that they do to reach a goal, be that a specific weight or % body fat. Yet, all of the research clearly points to the fact that diets do not work (and are actually harmful in the long run), precisely because people adopt a yo-yo approach to dieting, which can permanently mess up their metabolism. They are either on the diet or they are not. The diet they choose is intrinsically unpalatable to keep up with for anyone other than a mouse and for anything more than a few weeks or months, because it’s a huge, unsustainable, change. No doubt, social media has a role to play in tempting people into the get fit quick craze, which is built on false promises.

The secret to lasting positive change is to make small, achievable and sustainable changes, which we (hopefully) come to enjoy over time. It’s not about making sweeping changes for a short period only to return to the habits that got us in trouble in the first place - the research consistently shows that it is highly unlikely that those kinds of changes will be effective in the long-term (by which I mean more than a few months).

The secret of marginal gains

You may not think that small changes will amount to much, but that is precisely what the GB Olympic cycling team did in preparation for the London 2012 Olympics, where they had their most successful gold medal haul in their history, setting 9 Olympic Records and 7 World Records in the process. David Brailsford, the then team GB cycling performance director was focused on helping his team improve various aspects of what they did and how they did it by just 1%, whether that be their sleep, bicycle set up, helmet aerodynamics, nutrition etc. It was the compound effect of those small changes that had such a powerful effect over time. Indeed, research has found that a large proportion of our mental state is down to the behaviours we adopt.

In essence, the research suggests we start small. If you want to get better sleep, when you’re only getting 5 hours a night. Start with increasing it to 5hrs and 15minutes, by going to bed 15-minutes earlier, rather than immediately aiming for 7 or 8. Once you have established a new routine you can add an additional 15 minutes and so on a so forth over the period of several months until you get to your ideal. The same with exercise. If you’re doing very little, if you want to make it sustainable, start small, perhaps with one workout a week. If it’s nutrition, perhaps think about swapping an afternoon coffee for a mint tea or a fruit rather than overhaul your entire diet (it’s far easier to swap for a healthier option than cut something out completely).

If we take an afternoon latte for example. Imagine that you regularly pop out to Starbucks for their 3pm latte. The ripple effect of replacing a medium latte with a mint tea is not insignificant. For a start there is the positive effect it could have on your sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of up to six hours, which means that at 9pm you might still have half the caffeine circulating in your system, potentially having a negative impact of the quality and quantity of sleep you get. Then of course there is the calorie saving. A medium latte contains 180 kcals whereas a mint tea has about 4 kcals. Over the course of five days that equates to almost 900 kcals. More importantly, over the course of one year, you would consume more than 42,000 fewer calories.

If you chose not to replace the latte with a mint tea and simply opted for a glass of water and a chat by the water cooler instead, you would also save in excess of £600 per year – enough for a luxury weekend away or mini-break.

The trouble with being human

Sometimes change requires us to stop and take notice. For me, that happened a few months ago, when I could no longer ignore the fact that I had been gaining weight month after month, 1kg at a time. Over the past 18 months, I had slowly shifted my diet from eating low fat yoghurt to full fat Greek yoghurt without adjusting my portion size. While I do plenty of exercise, that wasn’t enough to counteract the vast number of additional calories I was consuming on a daily basis. When I dared to do the maths, I calculated that my Greek yoghurt addiction was the equivalent of more than 600 kcals per day. In just one week I was consuming 4,200 kcals of Greek yogurt. Across an entire year that equates to almost 220,000 kcals.

I burn just shy of 1,000 kcals on an eight-mile run, which means I would need to run almost 218 eight-mile runs (or 1,750 miles) over the course of a year to cancel out the excess calories from my Greek yoghurt addiction. I should hasten to add, that I was getting sufficient daily calories and nutrition from the rest of my diet and that the Greek yoghurt was essentially excess calories that my body didn’t need, which is why I had been gaining weight. Needless to say that by swapping Greek yoghurt for a handful of fruit in the evenings, my weight started to come down – it’s not rocket science and after the first week, I didn’t even miss not having Greek yoghurt any more.

If you are reading this, while struggling with an eating disorder of some kind, I would recommend you seek support and advice, either from the NHS or you can speak to someone at the eating disorder charity Beat by calling 0808 801 0677.

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