When you think about a lofty ambition, like running a marathon or dropping 20+ pounds, the idea alone might seem stressful. After all, any big goal always seems impossible until you get there, and improving your health and fitness is no exception.
While having long-term aspirations is important, it's actually the small, daily choices we make day-in and day-out that produce the most meaningful improvements.
In fact, it's essential to make changes slowly rather than chasing quick wins, says certified strength and conditioning specialist Rocky Snyder, CPT, because small, positive changes in behavior over time are what lead to meaningful, lasting results.
So instead of vowing that you'll spend an hour at the gym for a month straight or forgo sugar forevermore, consider these much smaller shifts that are actually smarter and more effective. Here, personal trainers dish on the eight small changes they wish more people would make.
1. Drink More Water
Sure, after a sweaty bootcamp workout or hot yoga session, you practically crawl for your water bottle. But here's a truth that few people recognize: Even when you aren't thirsty, your body is still begging you for H2O.
And whether you want to shed weight or improve your physical endurance, guzzling enough water during the day is a game-changer, says Tara Allen, RN, CPT, a certified health coach and personal trainer. More than anything else, Allen says hydration keeps our healthy lifestyle, well, flowing, since it helps our metabolism run smoothly.
Indeed, when you're dehydrated, your metabolism dips and your body burns 2 percent fewer calories, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Allen also says many people mistake thirst for hunger. "This means that sometimes when we need more water, our brain is telling us we're hungry instead," she explains. To combat this, she suggests drinking one 8-ounce glass of water within a half hour of waking, even before you sip coffee or eat breakfast. Aim to down two glasses each before lunch and dinner, too, and see what a difference it makes in how much you consume. And sip on three more glasses throughout the day to hit the eight daily cups recommended by the ACE.
2. Find an Exercise You Really Enjoy
If you've been looking for permission to cancel your gym membership and never, ever set foot in one again, you're in luck! Personal trainer Jill McKay, CPT, says if you hate going to the gym… you shouldn't do it.
Though it seems like one of those no-duh type of revelations, she explains that people are much more successful in sticking to an activity routine if they actually enjoy it. And if you can't get into the treadmill-stomping, weight-lifting hustle on your own, then it's time to test out new ways of working up a sweat.
"Perhaps you'd be more interested in martial arts or a boxing class, dancing or ninja-style obstacle-course training. Or perhaps yoga or Pilates videos in the comfort of your own home is more likely to suit you," she suggests. "When you figure out what you like and actually enjoy making healthy choices, you are more likely to stick with it for the long run."
What you're hoping to foster is a mindset that includes working out as a fun, exciting part of your week — not something you have to check off.
3. Go to Bed Earlier
More than 50 million Americans struggle with sleep, according to the American Sleep Association, and nearly 5 percent of obesity issues could be solved by more zzzs.
Whether you realize it or not, sleep plays a critical role when it comes to two key factors connected to your weight: metabolism and appetite, says personal trainer Ambyr Chatzopoulos, CPT, CSCS. Even in the short-term — as in, not getting enough shut-eye for a few nights — sleep deprivation can cause your body to stop producing as much leptin, a hormone that helps increase your energy and suppress your cravings, Chatzopoulos says.
"Not only will you have less energy and be hungrier, but it also causes you to crave sweet and salty food, which is typically higher in calories," she explains.
If you're consistently getting less than the recommended seven to eight hours, you probably won't be able to change your ways overnight (pun intended). Rather, try going to sleep fifteen minutes earlier each week until you're hitting the pillow for the desired amount of time.
4. Travel With Snacks
You made it through three whole weeks of the paleo diet — and your body is already showing results. You also managed to make it to the high-intensity-interval-training class you love three times and, though you're sore, it's the good kind of pain that makes you feel accomplished.
But now you're heading away for the weekend and you're not quite sure what type of temptations or hurdles are ahead of you. To give yourself the best possible chance at success, ACE-certified personal trainer and health coach Olga Hays says you should never leave home without snacks. After all, hanger and low blood sugar are real, and they can cause you to grab whatever food's available — which likely isn't the healthiest option.
"Stock up on non-perishable items such as raw nuts, dried fruit, low-sugar granola bars and low-sodium turkey jerky," Hays suggests. "Have them in your car, in your desk drawer, in your purse. That way you are always prepared with healthy options when your stomach starts grumbling."
5. Commit to 5 Minutes of Movement a Day
Many people foster a notion with exercise and diet that you're either "on" or you're "off" — when in reality, you're just living. Ditch the "all-or-nothing" mindset toward health and commit to just 5 minutes of exercise daily.
"Exercising even a little bit is better than nothing. Here's a small change you can take on for yourself: Aim to move your body, on purpose, for 5 minutes a day. If you want to do more, do more," Allen continues. "This small but mighty goal will help you get in the habit of daily movement no matter how busy your day is."
6. Make Your Bed Every Morning
Fess up: What did your house or apartment look like this morning when you headed out the door? If it was a hot mess, don't feel guilty — we all have busy, chaotic days that don't exactly give us time to tidy up. However, as a general rule, Snyder says when you are organized at home, you are more likely to be productive throughout your day.
If you truly can't be bothered to do the dishes or sweep the floor in the early a.m., consider just doing one very easy (and fast!) task: Make your bed. "This may or may not lead to more goals for the rest of the day, but if nothing else, the person has succeeded in at least one thing," he continues. "Success breeds success."
7. Eat Your Meals on Salad Plates
Many people struggle with portion control, especially if you grew up in the United States, which is notorious for larger servings. When you actually measure out 8 ounces of this or 2 tablespoons of that, you likely will be surprised at what a healthy serving really looks like.
Snyder says one effective and simple way to manage how much you're eating is by replacing a dinner plate with a salad plate. Because you can fit much less on it, you won't be tempted to go overboard. It also may start to shift your attitude toward what it means to feel full. "It is okay to go back and have seconds, but there is no need to start off the meal as if you're at an all-you-can-eat buffet," he says.
8. Park at the Farthest Spot in the Lot
Or walk to work instead of taking public transport, if possible. When friends want to meet for happy hour, suggest a stroll through your local park as a healthier alternative.
Since many people have office jobs that require them to have their bottom in a seat eight hours a day, a sedentary lifestyle is the norm. However, Chatzopoulos says simply adding more movement and steps into your routine is helpful for your goals. "You will burn more calories, you will loosen up your muscles and joints and you will feel more awake. The more we can move, the better we'll feel overall," she explains.