Making Small Changes That Add Up To A Healthier Lifestyle
Warmer weather and longer days offer an ideal opportunity to start cleaning up eating habits and getting on track to a healthy lifestyle. Getting started does not require sweeping changes or drastic measures. Rather, the most effective way to make changes is a slow and steady approach that focuses on a few small, manageable steps. Meal planning, portion control and exercise are a few ways to get started making changes in personal health through better nutrition and physical activity.
Planning meals in advance is a powerful way to make healthy choices at home. Aside from helping people to eat more healthily, this habit helps to save money, time and stress at the grocery store. Many people may not be able to commit to knowing what they will eat all of the time, and that is okay.
Meal planning can start small, with simple strategies like making a grocery list for one or two meals or keeping some healthy frozen foods at home. Frozen foods like vegetable mixes or shrimp are especially useful for those nights when making a last minute trip to the grocery store is not going to happen.
Like any other healthy habit, meal planning does not need to be an all-or-nothing habit. It’s good to practice by starting slow, and then increasing the number of planned meals per day or week. The bottom line is meal planning can be simple or complex, but it will always give people more power to make a healthy choice.
During meals, many simple, concrete habits can help control portion sizes. Using smaller plates, bowls and cups can help to physically reduce the amount of food in one helping. A similar technique is to repackage snacks by eating them from a plate or bowl rather than directly out of a box or bag. At restaurants, portions are often very generous and open the door to overeating. Asking for a smaller portion, splitting a meal with a friend, or packaging half of the meal right away are all effective ways of controlling portions when eating out. Together, these simple strategies can make a big difference in portion size when used at meal and snack times.
Considering proportions of food groups on the plate by using the USDA MyPlate is another way to control portion sizes. This guide calls for filling half of the plate with fruits and vegetables, and add lean proteins and whole grains to the other half. This easy-to-grasp concept can help people to eat healthier by increasing the amount of vitamins, minerals and fiber in their diet, and just as importantly, by creating an appealing-looking meal.
Exercise is often the personal change many people find most daunting, but it is just another habit that can be incorporated with small modifications to everyday actions. Exercise helps improve physical function and mental health, and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Finding a plan that is feasible, accessible, proven and enjoyable creates the best chance of sticking with exercise for a longer time.
It's best to start with low-impact activities like hiking, light resistance training and beginner fitness classes. Many people find walking or swimming programs especially helpful and enjoyable. Starting is always the most difficult part of any exercise regimen, but identifying a time of day that is least disruptive to other responsibilities will help to keep exercise fun and keep it from becoming a hassle.
All of these changes to eating habits and exercise activities can lead to an overall healthier lifestyle. However, the most important tool in a healthy habit toolbox is motivation. Identifying small, specific and realistic goals often helps in getting started and keeping up with new habits. The journey of one thousand miles begins with the first step and leading a healthy lifestyle is no different.
Beth Olson, Ph.D., is a nutrition specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and an associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at UW-Madison. Robert Davis is an associate outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and a dietetic intern at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts.