So you've decided to get healthier and now as you think about it, that task may seem daunting or even impossible. This may be even more so if you imagine that reaching your goal requires you to become an athlete following a Spartan diet, or a fitness fanatic who can keep a stress-free life with a perfect schedule for sleep, exercise and meals. Actually, research suggests that small changes can yield big benefits in terms of increases in energy, improved sleep, and reduced cardiovascular disease risk. In other words, real benefits are attainable and it is worth making changes in your everyday choices and actions in order to improve your health.
Increasing your physical activity and breaking up long blocks of sedentary time has been shown to improve your blood pressure and reduce your risk of diabetes, or help control diabetes if you already have it. In fact, decades of research demonstrate that exercise can't be beat for giving you the combined benefits of improved cardiovascular risk, better mental clarity, increased energy, improved sleep, and making the rest of your life feel more manageable.
The good news is that you do not have to train for or run a marathon to experience benefits from increased physical activity. Small changes such as adding a walk at lunch or after dinner can help improve your blood sugar levels, studies show. Similarly, getting up and moving around after each hour of sitting can help you focus and reduce the tendency to rely on snacks to keep your energy level up. Moreover, walking rather than snacking can also leave you feeling better at the end of the day and help you sleep better at night.
Start today by picking one small change to make. Then, stick with it for four to six weeks before committing to another change. Most people are more effective at sustaining new health behaviors if they take them one at a time. The many benefits of even small changes also make it easier to make gains in other areas. Improving your health with small steps can be easier than you might imagine.
Chloe E. Bird is a senior sociologist at the RAND Corporation, where she studies women's health and health care as well as social determinants of health. She is a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and editor-in-chief of the journal Women's Health Issues.
This commentary originally appeared on Sister to Sister on July 2, 2014. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.