If your goal is to lose weight and exercise more, forget the deprivation diet and marathon workouts. Research shows that taking baby steps—not giant leaps—is the best way to get lasting results.
A study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that participants who made one small, potentially permanent change in their food choices and/or physical activity each week (such as drinking one fewer can of soda or walking 5 more minutes each day) lost more than twice as much belly fat, 2½ more inches off their waistlines, and about 4 times more weight during a 4-month program, compared with those who followed traditional calorie-restriction and physical-activity guidelines.
“When you focus on just a couple of small changes at a time, you begin to ingrain some healthy habits that last a lifetime, rather than trying an all-or-nothing approach that more often than not fails because it’s too hard to follow,” says Lesley Lutes, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at East Carolina University.
We’ve uncovered 15 simple steps (with proven results) to help you move more, eat less, and look and feel better than ever. Add just one or two a week to your regular routine and you can lose nearly 3 inches off your waistline and be about 10 pounds lighter in a few months. Even better: Once these healthy habits become second nature, they’ll benefit you for a lifetime.
1. Pick up a pen
Mindlessly munching on a bag of chips could result in easily polishing off the whole thing; write down how much you’ve eaten and you’re more likely to practice portion control and lose weight fast. Keeping a food log helps control extra calories in two ways: the combination of a plain old reality check (I just ate 30 minutes ago!) and awareness that what you’re putting in your mouth will soon be recorded for posterity. In a recent study, people who kept a food journal lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t. When they combined it with a moderate diet and exercise plan, they lost an average of 13 pounds in 6 months. Journaling also gives you insight into your eating habits, says Dr. Lutes. Do you skip meals? Eat the same during the week as on the weekend? Binge when you’re feeling stressed? “Knowing your routine helps you figure out what changes are right for you,” she adds.
2. Skip through commercials
Get moving during your favorite TV shows. Skip, dance, go up and down some stairs, run in place—anything that gets your heart rate up so you feel somewhat breathless, says Geralyn Coopersmith, senior national manager at Equinox Fitness. Do it for each 2-minute break (forget the TiVo) during a typical 2-hour TV night and you’ll burn an extra 270 calories a day—which can translate to a 28-pound weight loss in a year. (Try this total-body toning routine you can do while watching TV.)
3. Limit high-fat foods
Tag the high-fat/high-calorie foods that are typically your favorites (our top five: cookies, candy, ice cream, potato chips, and fries) and gradually downshift. “If you’re eating six of these foods a week, try to go down to five,” says Dr. Lutes. Each week, drop another until you’re at no more than one or two; at the same time, add in a good-for-you choice like baby carrots, sautéed broccoli, oranges, and other fresh fruits and veggies.
4. Sign up for e-newsletters
One study from Kaiser Permanente found that people who received weekly e-mails about diet and fitness for 16 weeks substantially increased their levels of physical activity and intakes of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables while cutting back on trans and saturated fats. Sign up for Prevention’s FREE weekly weight loss newsletters.
5. Walk 5 minutes more
In Dr. Lutes’s pilot study, increasing daily activity levels by just a few minutes at a time helped participants lose weight faster. Eventually, your goal should be to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day (burning off about 120 extra calories daily, or 12½ pounds a year), but it doesn’t have to be all at once. (Check out these 25 easy ways to squeeze in 10 minutes of exercise.)
6. Add mini strength training
Basic body-weight exercises like squats and push-ups are a simple way to build more metabolism-revving muscle in minutes (helping you lose weight faster), and research shows they’re just as effective as hitting the gym. “Your muscles don’t know the difference between working against your body’s own resistance and on a fancy piece of equipment,” says Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., fitness research director at Quincy College and Prevention advisor. “The one rule to follow is that each exercise should fatigue your muscles within 60 to 90 seconds.” For an extra burn, you can add an exercise band or resistance tubes to basic moves.
Try this mini-workout: Do 10 reps each of knee push-ups, squats, crunches, lunges, and chair dips. Then gradually increase the number of reps it takes for your muscles to feel fully fatigued.
7. Climb 3 extra flights
Have a choice between riding and climbing? Including 2 to 3 minutes of stair climbing per day—covering about three to five floors—can burn enough calories to eliminate the average American’s annual weight gain of 1 to 2 pounds a year. It’s also good for more than just your waistline: Men who climbed more than 70 flights of stairs a week had 18% lower mortality rates than those who climbed fewer than 20 flights a week, according to one Harvard study. Start with just a couple of flights a day; if you’re already a dedicated climber, aim to add three more flights to your daily trek.
8. Take a pedometer with you
Just as you wouldn’t leave home without your cell phone, make a pedometer a must-have accessory. Research shows pedometer users take nearly 2,500 more steps a day (over 1 mile, or about 100 calories) than nonusers. Over a year, that’s enough to burn off about 10 pounds.
9. Brown-bag it more
You’ll save thousands of calories (not to mention hundreds of dollars) over the course of a year. Consider this: A premade chicken Caesar wrap from a chain restaurant has 610 calories, more than 40% of which come from fat, as well as 1,440 mg of sodium (more than half the recommended daily amount). Make your own with presliced deli chicken breast on whole wheat bread with light mayo and romaine lettuce for about 230 calories. You’ll cut almost 400 calories and about 520 mg of sodium, which leaves room for a side salad and could still add up to a 28-pound weight loss after a year. “When you make and eat your own food, you not only control the quality and portion sizes but also reduce the amount of sugar, salt, and fat that you’re consuming, which can be significantly higher in restaurant fare,” says Ashley Koff, RD, a Prevention advisor and nutrition consultant based in Los Angeles.
10. Obey the 1-mile rule
Americans use their cars for two-thirds of all trips that are less than 1 mile and 89% of all trips that are 1 to 2 miles, yet each additional hour you spend driving is associated with a 6% increase in obesity. Burn calories instead of gas by following this rule: If your errands are less than 1 mile away, vow to walk them at a brisk pace instead of driving. Or a park where you can run several errands within a mile instead of moving your car each time. Walk every day and you’ll be 13 to 17 pounds lighter next year.
11. Take 10 to eat a treat
Try this strategy to permanently reduce cravings: Portion out one serving of your favorite treat, taking a minute to smell it, look at it, and think about it. Take one small bite. Chew slowly, moving it around your mouth and focusing on the texture and taste, then swallow. Ask yourself whether you want another bite or if that satisfied you. If you still want more, repeat, this time chewing the food 20 times. Continue this eating exercise for as long as you want or until you finish the serving (it should take about 10 minutes).
“When you take the time to slow down and be more mindful of what something really tastes like, you’ll feel more satisfied,” says Dr. Lutes. “Many of our participants told us that after a while, they didn’t enjoy the treat as much as they thought they would, or they were content after just a couple of bites and were better able to stop eating when they were satisfied.”
12. Eat fruits; don’t drink ’em
Skip juice and eat the whole fruit, instead. You’ll not only get more heart-healthy fiber in your diet (3.5 g for a small apple versus .5 g in a glass of juice), you’ll also stay satisfied, longer. Research shows that fiber aside, liquid carbohydrates just aren’t as filling as solids. “When you chew a food, you generate more saliva, which in turn carries a message to the brain that your gut needs to get ready for digestion,” explains Koff. “Drinking doesn’t require such digestion, so the body doesn’t register that it’s full as quickly.” Plus there are the extra calories—48% more if you’re drinking that juice rather than eating the whole apple. (Do that daily and you may gain up to 4 pounds by year’s end.)
13. Get technical support
You know exercising with a friend makes you more accountable (nobody wants to leave a pal stranded on a street corner at 6 AM). But your workouts don’t always have to be done face to face. One study found women who had some form of social support, either through in-person counseling or an online chat group, lost more than 15 pounds over a 9-month period, dropping about 300 calories from their daily diet and walking about a mile more each day than from their starting point.
14. Go old school with coffee
15. Sleepaway weight gain
Make a point of turning in earlier and you’ll see weight loss within a week. Research from the University of Pennsylvania found even just a few nights of sleep deprivation can lead to almost immediate weight gain. Scientists asked participants to sleep about 10 hours a night for two days, followed by five nights of sleep restriction and four nights of recovery. After the 11 days, the sleep-deprived group gained almost 3 pounds, compared with a well-rested control group.
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