Health: Small steps to a healthier you

Making small changes like taking the stairs instead of the lift can help shift the pounds
Making small changes like taking the stairs instead of the lift can help shift the pounds

If your healthy New Year’s resolution is looking shaky already, don’t despair - easier, less ambitious, changes are the way to go

Did you make a well-intentioned New Year’s resolution this year? If so, has it failed yet?

Unfortunately, the answer is likely to be yes, as it’s estimated that 88% of New Year’s resolutions - most of which are linked to health improvements - fail very quickly. In fact, research suggests that three-quarters hit the buffers within nine days.

But before you accept defeat and reach for a box of chocolates or throw your trainers in the bin, heed a little advice from the experts. Rather than huge undertakings, like strict diets, regular gym workouts or quitting smoking overnight, small - more realistic - changes, they say, can still make a big difference to your health and appearance.

Dr Justin Varney, national lead for Adult Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England, says: “The New Year is a time when you naturally reflect on your life and investing in your health, and may resolve to make some big changes.

“But New Year’s resolutions are so hard to stick to. Small changes are much easier, because they’re a little tweak in what you do, rather than moving from sweatpants to lycra and finding a gym.”

For all people’s good intentions, the truth is that many detest exercise - something that’s reflected in the fact that more than one in four UK women and one in five men do less than 30 minutes of physical activity a week, so are classified as ‘inactive’.

In fact, physical inactivity is believed to be the fourth biggest cause of disease and disability in the UK.

It’s recommended that adults aim to be active daily, doing at least 150 minutes (21 hours) of moderate-intensity activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. This could mean 30 minutes of exercise on at least five days a week.

Dr Varney says: “The big issue we have in this country is that almost a third of us aren’t doing the recommended amount - but physical activity is easy to do; you don’t need a class, you don’t need to spend money, you just need to open your front door and walk out of it.”

EVERY LITTLE COUNTS

He says even doing 10 minutes of exercise every other day, simply by walking to work, school or the shops, for example, can make a difference.

“Going from nothing to something has a huge impact on health.”

The time factor can sometimes be a barrier to people weaving physical activity into their lives, but Dr Varney points out that when you take traffic jams, waiting for buses and parking into account, walking can often work out quicker than driving or taking public transport.

“All the evidence shows that getting out of the house, walking, and interacting with the environment brings much more satisfaction. Build it into your everyday life - it’s not just good for our bodies, it’s good for our minds.

“But the key is not to beat yourself up about doing it every day. Every other day, or three times a week, gets you started. It’s a lot easier to do it that way, and the important bit is that you stick with that commitment of doing it quite regularly.”

BITE-SIZED CHANGES

As far as diet goes, it’s just a case of tweaking the things you already eat to make them healthier, so using low-fat spreads instead of butter, sweeteners instead of sugar, etc.

Dr Varney says: “It’s the little things every day that, over time, help us pile on the pounds, so changing that and swapping some of those little things is how to tackle it, in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re punishing ourselves.”

Another nail in the healthy lifestyle coffin can be alcohol, and often people who try to reduce or give up booze as a New Year’s resolution admit to falling off the wagon within a few weeks.

“Setting yourself the goal of taking a break from alcohol over a number of weeks can help to reduce your drinking in the long run,” says Dr Varney. “There are a number of tips to follow to help cut down, but the most important factor is making sure whatever route you choose is the most suitable one for you and your lifestyle.”

SMOKE-FREE ZONE

One popular New Year’s resolution that often fails quickly is quitting smoking, especially if you attempt to quit overnight without support. Dr Varney says that while advice from local Stop Smoking Services can make it four times more likely for smokers to successfully quit, increasing research also suggests that a way to help reduce or completely quit tobacco could be to try using e-cigarettes.

“We know that e-cigarettes are really helping a lot of smokers move away from the damage that cigarettes do,” says Dr Varney. “But they’re not perfect, and in effect, you move your addiction from a normal cigarette to the nicotine in the e-cigarette.”

He points out, however, that while you’re still addicted to nicotine, if you use an e-cigarette, it’s without the chemicals in tobacco that cause lung cancer and other problems.

“Many of the people I know that have been struggling with smoking for years have really found that e-cigarettes have helped.”

He adds: “It doesn’t cost more or take more time to be healthy. It does take will and commitment - if this was easy, everyone would be a healthy weight and be active every day.

“They’re not, because it’s challenging, but making those small changes and being realistic about what you can achieve can really get results.”

EASY TIPS FOR A HEALTHIER DIET

:: Change from sugary sodas to sugar-free or low-calorie drinks, or at least alternate the full sugar versions with water.

:: Replace butter with low-fat spreads.

:: Choose reduced fat cheese or when using cheese in cooking, try a stronger flavour like mature Cheddar, which means you can use less.

:: Brown leaner mince when making spaghetti bolognese or chilli, then drain off any fat before adding other ingredients.

:: Choose desserts and dressings that are lower in fat.

:: Use semi-skimmed, 1% fat or skimmed milk instead of whole milk.

:: Swap sugary cereals for plain ones like porridge or wholegrain wheat biscuits.

:: Use less sugar and salt, and try not to add salt to food when cooking.

BREAK THE BOOZING

:: If you tend to have a drink at a certain time, break the habit by doing something different at that time.

:: If you drink every day, 
try to have at least two days a week when you don’t drink any 
alcohol at all.

:: Pace yourself by sipping slowly, and space your drinks out - have a soft drink or glass of water in between.

:: Have a smaller bottle of beer instead of a can, or a single instead of a double.

:: Swap your usual for a drink with less alcohol, which may be cheaper and often has less calories.

ACTIVE IDEAS

:: Walk or cycle to work, school and/or the shops.

:: Use the stairs instead of the lift.

:: Dance madly to your favourite songs in the kitchen.

:: Take up a sport you enjoyed at school.

:: Do some active housework or gardening.

:: For more information about small healthy changes, visit www.nhs.uk/Change4Life