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Small steps to big fitness: A little goes a long way

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Does your New Year’s resolution relate to physical activity or fitness? Maybe you’re thinking in terms of a full-scale fitness renovation or whole body overhaul. If so…

…how does 2 percent sound?

We’re talking lifestyle change, not milk. Yes, it sounds counterintuitive, but 2 percent change is the key to full-on success, says Dr. Edward Phillips, director of the Institute for Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. That’s because small steps are achievable and sustainable, and lead to big results.

Maybe you want to bench-press your body weight or run a 5K without stopping. Whatever your ultimate goal, “you have to take the first step to start the process,” says Dr. Phillips. No need to get out your calculator. Just take your goal or plan and scale it down.

“If your goal is to go to the gym every day of the week for two hours a day, ask how confident you are that you’ll stick to that plan for the next three or four weeks,” says Dr. Phillips. “If your confidence level is low, think about dialing it back and going to the gym three times a week for an hour, or going to a Zumba® class once a week as a start. What’s your confidence level in that? It’s easier and probably more attainable to attack and achieve the smaller goal first.”

For encouragement along the way:

  • Ask friends for positive feedback.
  • Post your goal and progress on social media.
  • Download a fitness tracking app that will. remind you how well you’re doing.
  • Keep a notebook for tracking your goals, plans, and workouts.

Small steps work for most students

Here’s what college students said about smaller vs. larger goals in a recent Student Health 101 survey.

  • Never tried smaller goals: 12%
  • Tried smaller goals but they weren’t easier: 7%
  • Small goals are easier for me: 65%
  • Larger goals don’t work for me, but I still try: 5%
  • Larger goals work better for me: 11%

Take the 2% revolution resolution

Here’s how students are taking small steps to fitness

Gym class heroes: Here’s how students bring small steps to the gym

Every other day
Instead of working out every day I started working out every other day. It was much easier and I was able to form a habit out of it, so now I can work out every day.
–Third-year student at Viterbo University in La Crosse, WI

Partial body workouts
Instead of just working my whole body and getting mad because I ran out of time, I now isolate one part of the body, so as to not get overwhelmed.
–College withheld

Incrementally add weight
I wanted to become stronger. Every day I went to the gym and added weight lifting in small increments. I added 5 lbs. to my work out once a week. I can see the results.
–Fourth-year student at Clemson University in South Carolina

Quick home gymming
Instead of trying to go to the gym every day for an hour or so, I found 10 min. exercise videos on YouTube and I started doing one of those 5 or 6 days a week in my own home.
–Second-year student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst

I just wanna run: Check out these students’ running plans

On the treadmill I rotate between jogging and walking. Slowly I started increasing the time I jogged and decreasing the time I walked.
–Second-year student at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina

Fitness tracking
While starting to work out I would run longer and slightly faster times each day. My FitBit/pedometer helped a lot to reach my goal.
–Third-year graduate student, Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA

Pacing yourself
I wanted to become stronger. Every day I went to the gym and added 5 lbs. to my work out once a week. I can see the results.
–Fourth-year student at Clemson University in South Carolina

Let's get together: Working out with fit friends? Make it manageable

Group project
I joined a community fitness program with a map and milestones each time you finished certain goals. The map showed my progress, which motivated me more.
–Third-year student at North Dakota State University in Fargo

Peer educators

My friends would always encourage me to go to the gym, but their level of fitness and the exercises that they were doing were too intense for me. I took advice from them and built my own routine. I started with easier activities and slowly I worked up to more intense ones.
–Second-year student at University of Massachusetts in Amherst

Bring it on: Dance, bowling, sports—even these can start small

Step by dance step
I'm a dancer so while learning choreography, it's always easier for me to take it apart and learn it in steps or pieces and then focus on memorizing the whole routine together
–Third-year student at University of Massachusetts in Amherst

Recovery time
After recovering from a shoulder surgery I had planned to get back to softball as soon as possible. My shoulder didn't allow for that. So instead, I started slowly getting my shoulder back into shape, and focused on hitting little goals before I was finally able to reach my final goal of playing softball again.
–Second-year student at University of Colorado in Colorado Springs

Patient return to form
I wanted to get back to my high school fitness level playing basketball. Instead og going to play basketball and run every day, I started out doing small stuff like just playing a pickup game every week and running/walking to class every day instead of driving. In a matter of months I was back to how I was in high school.
–Fourth-year student at Emporia State University in Kansas

Sustainable practice
When I wanted to improve my scores with bowling, I would practice three games in a row. I would want to do more so I could push myself, but I knew that if I practiced at more than three games, I would lose focus and get frustrated.
–Fourth-year student at University of Hawaii in Manoa

The new workout plan: How students turn big goals into small ones

Realistic expectations
The first thing I had to realize was that I'm not going to achieve exactly what I want as fast as I would like to. I made little goals, like eating healthier for a meal, walking instead of taking a bus, and doing exercise when I'm not busy.
–First-year student at the University of Rochester in New York

Steady progress

When I set my goal to do 20 pull-upps, I was only able to do 12. Each day, I set a smaller goal to do just one more then I did the day before. After a couple weeks, I finally reached my 20 pull-ups goal.
–Fourth-year student at Western Oregon University in Monmouth

Set up for success
Instead of gaining muscle and losing fat over a week, I broke it down into months so that I wouldn't be disheartened and give up.
–Fourth-year student at University of Colorado in Colorado Springs

All the small things: The food-workout combo in small bites

I wanted to make sure i was eating healthy and going to the gym regularly. I started with one to two healthy meals a day and 1-2 workouts a week. I was then able to slowly reach the goal of at least 2 healthy meals a day and only eating out on weekends and making 3-4 trips to the gym per week.
First-year graduate student agt Southern Illinois University in Carbondale

My main goal was to loose 20 pounds and I would try to go to the gym every day, but in the long run it stressed me out. Now I aim to go to the gym two to three times a week and have stopped thinking about the weight. Doing something healthy for me is what keeps me going.
Fourth-year student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale

I aimed at eating healthier by replacing junk foods with fruits and vegetables, along with going to the gym once or twice a week.
Third-year student at Millersville University in PA

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