When Mary Morrison retired in May 2021, she made up her mind to get in better physical shape. She had always wanted to try aqua aerobics, so she signed up for a class. She had to summon all her courage to put on a swimsuit and walk from the locker room to the pool for her first class. But taking that first step—making one small change—has helped her improve her health, lose weight and build self-confidence.
Morrison was onto something. Starting small almost always leads to more success than trying to make huge life changes all at once, says Julie McNamara, MS, health education manager at UNC Wellness Centers.
“People who think they have to make tons of changes all at once may start out strong,” she says, “but they often don’t stick with it because such a big change is not sustainable.”
Committing to One Small Change at a Time
Morrison had a big goal of improving her fitness, but she took it in small steps, one change at a time. Before retiring as assistant dean and director of the Kernodle Center for Civic Life at Elon University, she started walking in her neighborhood. Then she started the aqua aerobics class. She promised herself she’d go to the gym twice a week, then found that she enjoyed it so much, she was there four times a week.
“People in the class were very supportive,” she says. “Everybody’s a beginner at some point.”
Within about eight weeks, she felt stronger, and decided to try an aerobics class “on land.”
“I found a joyful, welcoming group of people of all different abilities,” she says. “One person was a 78-year-old woman. I couldn’t keep up with her. She was inspiring.”
Morrison lost 50 pounds during her first year of exercising, an accomplishment that would have seemed overwhelming if she started with that goal.
“I didn’t go into this to lose weight,” she says. “I went into it with health and wellness as my goal. That was a good mindset for me.”
Go Slow and Steady When Making Changes
Making one small change at a time can be life-changing, McNamara says.
“When you give yourself permission to start small, you’re able to focus,” she says. “You’re more likely to be successful, and that builds self-confidence.”
She cautions people not to make major changes all at once: jumping into an intensive exercise program, changing their diet, depriving themselves of too many things they enjoy.
“We’re fighting the culture that says you have to do it all at once and go fast,” she says. “By giving yourself permission to start small, you can fight the ‘quick fix’ mindset.”
Make Each Change a New Habit
The key, McNamara says, is establishing good habits, one at a time.
“We can’t improve a habit until we’ve established it,” she says. “If you want to exercise consistently, then pick a day and time. Put on your workout shoes. Even if you start by walking for five minutes, you’re getting the habit down so it’s automatic.”
She suggests creating an environment that supports the habits you’re trying to promote. For example, if you want to make sure you take your medicine on time every morning, then try putting it on the counter with a glass of water. Pretty soon, it will be a habit that doesn’t require a lot of brain power to remember.
Improve Your Diet in Small Ways, Too
If part of your wellness goal is eating more nutritious foods, remember that you don’t have to do it all at once.
“Ask yourself what you’re most ready to do,” McNamara says. “Maybe you like fruit. Then start eating a piece of fruit at breakfast every morning. Then maybe you’re ready to move on to adding a vegetable to your lunch.”
Make it easy for yourself. Wash fruits and vegetables before you put them away in the refrigerator or on the counter, so they’re easy to grab. Pack little bags of carrot sticks or berries you can throw in your lunch during the week.
Once you’ve established a habit, lasting change becomes easier.
Of course, it’s often harder to stop doing something than to start. For example, if you like chips or sweets, it’s difficult to tell yourself you can’t have them. Instead of depriving yourself, consider slowing down, McNamara says.
“Cut down on the portions,” she says. “Or if you’ve been eating chips every day, maybe cut back to a couple of times a week. Buy them prepackaged in smaller serving sizes. Slow down and savor the taste and allow yourself to feel good that you’ve kept it to a proper portion.”
Beware of Negative Voices That Sabotage Your Efforts
Achieving goals such as losing weight, getting stronger or lowering blood sugar takes time and dedication. Be proud of yourself for sticking to the process, even if you can’t see results yet, McNamara says.
“The reality is that it’s not going to feel that exciting day in and day out, so we need to remind ourselves of where our decisions are going to get us,” she says. “You can encourage yourself by celebrating consistency over results. Celebrate that you showed up and did that exercise or went for that walk or lifted those weights.”
Even before you see or feel changes in your body, that consistency will give you a boost, she adds.
“When we follow through with the things we set out to do, we’re proving to ourselves that we can,” she says. “It improves our self-confidence when we show up for ourselves.”
One Small Change Is Not Just for Diet and Exercise
Small changes also can help relieve stress, improve sleep and get you socializing again.
Stress can cause unwanted changes in our bodies, including high blood pressure, weight gain, sleep disruption, digestive issues, and aches and pains, McNamara says. Find small, daily ways to relieve stress, like taking five deep breaths and letting them out slowly, getting lost in a favorite song or taking a quick walk around the block.
Small changes also can help improve sleep, which is a key driver of overall health, she says.
“Work toward a consistent bedtime,” she says. “Then work backwards. Try for going to bed half an hour earlier.”
If you want to reconnect with friends or family, you can start small there, too. Text or call them, then see if you enjoyed the connection. If so, suggest a get-together in person.
Start Where You Are
Morrison has continued to push herself a little at a time. She has now worked up to a tougher aerobics class. She couldn’t keep up at first, but she didn’t stop trying.
“It’s a 45-minute class, and the first time I only lasted 20 minutes,” she says. “It took eight weeks, but I finally made it through the whole class. I have never felt such a sense of accomplishment.”
Her advice to others is this: “Don’t be thinking about what you can’t do, think of what you can do.”
There’s probably one small step you can take today.