Making Small, Health-Boosting Changes Throughout the Year
Making Small, Health-Boosting Changes Throughout the Year

The fresh beginning that every new year offers prompts many of us to make sweeping changes for the good of our health. While the results are certainly worth the effort — living longer, reducing your risk of disease, and improving your energy level and outlook — you don’t need to make a dozen changes at once. In fact, setting the bar too high can sometimes cause you to miss it altogether.

“Small changes are much easier to integrate into our lives than larger ones. It is lifelong ‘integration’ we want, not change per se,” says Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, a healthy living motivation expert and associate director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls at the University of Michigan.

The lifestyle changes you choose to make might range from improving your health profile to boosting your self-image to reducing the stress in your life. Whatever you want to work on, you can create a plan of action that will be achievable, says family medicine practitioner Mack T. Ruffin IV, MD, MPH, the Max and Buena Lichter Research Professor of Family Medicine and associate chair for research programs at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor. Acknowledge what you want to change, set a long-range goal, let other people know about your goal, and then set measurable, clear mini-goals to get there, says Dr. Ruffin.

While many of Ruffin’s patients have weight loss goals, others might want to gain control over alcohol or tobacco use, get more sleep, manage a chronic disease more effectively, spend more time with family, and even take better care of their financial health. Each of these big goals can be tackled with a small-changes approach.

As you’re deciding on what you need to address in your life to improve your health, create a timetable that’s realistic for you as well. Radical changes — or those that you attempt to accomplish overnight — are rarely successful. Instead, start with a 12-month plan. Here are a dozen healthy habits that you can choose to include in your plan. And giving yourself a full month to incorporate each of these individual changes means you have the whole year to make meaningful improvements.

Healthy Habits to Boost Your Self-Image

Want to feel great about yourself? Start practicing these healthy habits, one month at a time. They’ll be a boost for you and those you love:

  • Practice kindness. Think actively about how you can be kind to yourself, says Susan Smalley, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles and founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, also in Los Angeles. “Notice if a harsh or critical voice sneaks up on you, and when it does, observe it with some curiosity and some kindness,” she suggests. A regular mediation practice can also help you become more aware of your thoughts without judging them.
  • Focus on your strengths. Often we obsess over what we see as flaws in ourselves, but rather than harp on your tendency to be impatient or your weakness for hot fudge, remind yourself of what you do well. Having a hard time coming up with your good attributes? Think about the compliments other people have given you — your intelligence, your generosity, your unique sense of style. Make a list and carry it with you.
  • Cut out sugar for a boost. You may quickly see positives changes in your overall self-image. That’s because eating concentrated sweets causes a rapid spike in blood sugar and an ensuing crash that can leave you moody and fatigued. “We see this all the time in our bariatric surgery patients. Post-operatively they haven’t lost any weight yet, but they feel better about themselves and the world,” says Joseph Colella, MD, director of robotic surgery at Magee-Women’s Hospital and St. Margaret’s Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pennsylvania. He attributes this in part to the fact that their bodies go sugar-free at this stage. You can try this out without major surgery — just cut out added sugars in your diet and see if your mood and sense of self improves, he says.
  • Acknowledge your achievements. Even if it’s just a small personal pat on the back, let yourself enjoy reaching both big and little goals you set for yourself. Acknowledging how far you’ve come can really make a difference in whether you stick with it over the long run.

Small Changes to Stop Stress

In today’s fast-paced world, stress is inevitable, but you do have control over how much you let stress affect you. Try incorporating these small changes on a monthly basis to get through the year in a better state of mind:

  • Practice mindfulness. According to research published in the journal Psychosomatics,mindfulness training is one way to manage your stress. Similar to meditation in practice, it helps you focus in the moment and, among cancer patients involved in the study, resulted in a drop in cortisol, the stress hormone. Rather than dwelling on the past or something you’re anxious about, “bring your attention to the present moment throughout the day,” advises Dr. Smalley. Simply observe, don’t criticize or edit events, and try to keep your thoughts from wandering off into your stress cycle, she explains. Use everyday activities to help you. “Every time you wash your hands, use that as a reminder to bring attention to the present,” suggests Smalley.
  • Smile every day and laugh as much as possible. Besides the fact that it feels good, laughter helps increase health and well-being, and smiling provides an open invitation to people around you to connect and be happy.
  • Get exercise and sleep. Healthy habits, such as getting enough sleep and being physically active, both help keep stress under control. If you know you don’t get enough of either, aim for about one more hour of sleep and 30 minutes (at least) of physical activity most days of the week. Integrate this into your plan in increments — ten minutes more of each in the first week, five more than that in the second, and so on.

Small Changes to Improve Your Overall Health

Healthy changes go beyond the staple goals of weight loss, and many are easier to accomplish. These small lifestyle changes can net big results if you incorporate them into your yearly plan:


  • Get a checkup. To determine the most important lifestyle changes for you, you need to know your “numbers,” including blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. A yearly checkup is an easy first step toward better health.
  • Get one more hour of sleep. Dr. Segar works with women of all ages to improve their health and believes that sleep is the foundation of all other positive changes. “Sleep not only influences our fuel for daily living, but when we don’t get enough of it, we often don’t have sufficient energy to make consistent decisions that favor health,” she says. And, as noted, getting enough sleep also helps cut down on stress.
  • Cut 100 calories a day and add 1,000 steps. These are two small changes that, over the course of a year, can add up to big health benefits. Keeping track of your calorie intake will help you to be more mindful of what you’re putting in your mouth. Up the number of steps you take by walking more during your lunch breaks or choosing the stairs over an elevator. “If we all did this, we’d be healthier,” says Ruffin.
  • Sit less during the day (and evening). According to a longitudinal study published in theBritish Journal of Sports Medicine, if you don’t get the recommended amount of physical activity for your age at some point during the day, the more you sit, the greater your health risks. Among the women who participated, those who didn’t exercise and who sat eight or more hours a day had an increased risk of dying after nine years, and that risk rose for those who sat for more than 11 hours a day. Make it a goal to take more frequent breaks from sitting by setting a timer to remind you to get up for at least five minutes every hour.
  • Get in the habit of rewarding yourself with healthy gifts. When you’re setting health goals, like eating better, losing weight, or being more active, the most common mistake is rewarding good behavior with something you’ve been withholding, like chocolate cake, says Dr. Colella. This can cause you to slip back into old, unhealthy habits. Instead, be creative about your rewards. Plan a fun activity, like an afternoon of ice skating or a movie with friends, as a reward for weight loss. When you reach a fitness milestone, buy snazzy new workout gear instead of giving yourself some time off from the gym.

This year, make your healthy lifestyle resolutions more manageable: Focus on small, achievable changes that, over time, will add up to a big difference in your life.

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