Small steps lead to big health gains

What does it mean to be physically active for your health?

“Many of my clients initially believe it means dedicating time to an exercise regimen of some kind – working out at the gym or going on a run,” says UK Health & Wellness Specialist Carrie Davidson, ACSM EP-C, RYT200, who provides free exercise consults and manages the MoveWell fitness program.

Simply incorporating physical activity into your daily routine can lead to big improvements to your overall health.

The common idea that only formalized exercise counts and the equally prevalent “go big or go home” mindsets are not helpful, according to Davidson and UK Health & Wellness Coach Amy Rodquist-Kodet, CHWC, MA, who helps clients create realistic habits that stick.

New research supports their perspective. Recent studies (Warren, et al. 2010, Healy et al. 2008) point to an understanding of exercising for health that may seem counterintuitive. Those who are generally active in their daily activities, such as walking or using the stairs, are at a lower risk for mortality and cardiovascular disease compared to those who do formal exercise.

Davidson notes many may be surprised by these findings. “You would guess those who work out for an hour, run on the treadmill, do CrossFit, etc., would be better off than those who simply get some exercise in throughout the day by walking to meetings, cleaning and playing with their kids.”

The implications of this research apply to everyone, regardless of current physical activity level.

“For those who are mostly sedentary except for the one hour they spend working out, this shakes up the commonly held perspective that one hour a day is enough,” Davidson says. “For those without dedicated exercise regimens but who consistently take walking breaks, use stairs, park far away and generally do a lot of little things that add up, this research should help them acknowledge these activities – while small – are still beneficial to their health.”

This research does not mean formalized exercise such as going to the gym has no benefit. Davidson offers this takeaway: “Know that a sedentary lifestyle may erase the benefits of your hour at the gym, so moving more throughout the day is most important.”

“Know that a sedentary lifestyle may erase the benefits of your hour at the gym, so moving more throughout the day is most important.”

How much physical activity is enough? Davidson echoes the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendation for cardiovascular exercise which is at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, at moderate intensity. “To know if you’re moving at moderate intensity, a good rule of thumb is you should be able to hold a conversation but unable to sing a song.”

If that recommendation sounds like a lot, Davidson reminds us “those 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise can be spread throughout the day. Try breaking it into six chunks of five-minute walks or movement breaks.”

Rodquist-Kodet uses a research-based strategy during her free habits consult with clients to help them start at the most basic level. “Think only-putting-on-your-walking-shoes small,” she says.

The strategy is called Tiny Habits, and it is the brainchild of Stanford University’s Dr. BJ Fogg. Rodquist-Kodet integrated this approach in her toolbox of strategies because of the ease and accessibility it offers her clients. “It focuses on developing a pattern in your brain, a habit feedback system, that allows you to not even think about putting on your walking shoes so you just do it automatically.”

Building a new habit is less taxing on your motivation than many of us tend to think, according to Rodquist-Kodet.

“The beauty of tiny habits is that you can forget about relying on pure willpower.”

“The beauty of tiny habits is that you can forget about relying on pure willpower. There are three components of building a habit: you need to have a trigger, motivation and ability. But we all tend to overemphasize the importance of motivation, forgetting the other two pieces have equally strong roles.”

Rodquist-Kodet helps her clients find existing habits, like turning on light switches, that could be used as a springboard to an additional tiny habit.

To find an existing habit that’s a good trigger for your new habit, you first have to identify what habit already comes second nature to you during the time you want to start your new habit. In the beginning, your tiny habit should take 30 seconds or less. It’s about wiring your brain to make the action of putting on your walking shoes automatic right after you turn the coffee maker on.

“If you actually go for a walk after that, great. But in the beginning, that’s not the goal. Starting really small and being consistent is more effective.”

Tiny habits and the new research highlighting the importance of movement breaks offer a welcome breather from perfectionist and all-or-nothing perspectives many associate with exercise. As Rodquist-Kodet says, “Motivation should be used to do something hard once – it’s not meant to be the fuel used day in and day out to keep a habit going.”

Instead, try using a burst of motivation to schedule a free habits consult to develop a system for letting your habits become near automatic.


Resources and opportunities

University of Kentucky Health & Wellness supports employees, spouses and retirees in their healthy physical activity through the workday and beyond. Take advantage of any of these great benefits exclusively offered to you as a member of our UK community:

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2 thoughts on “Small steps lead to big health gains

    1. Hi Barbara! Glad to hear about your interest in our Health & Wellness programs. It seems like you may be interested in either an exercise consult (figure out what kind of exercise is right for you) or a habits consult (learn to make habits stick).

      For an exercise consult, go here to schedule: http://www.uky.edu/hr/wellness/personalized-guidance/exercise-consult

      And for habits consult, go here: http://www.uky.edu/hr/wellness/consults/tiny-habits-consult

      Of course, feel free to do both if you’d like!

      And if you have any trouble signing up, please call the Health & Wellness main office at 257-9355 for assistance.

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