Small things, big results: the science of changing health habits at a moderate pace

Incremental health changes are sustainable health changes and, by lessening or tweaking our behaviours rather than eliminating poor ones or committing to healthier ones overnight, we make it easier to adhere to any restraints we place upon ourselves or, indeed, to the new habits we are embracing. Therefore, the theory goes, if we avoid making sweeping changes, we commit more readily.

I first happened upon the concept of 'extreme moderation' when reading a book by Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman. Referencing a website called Everydaysystems - and its founder Reinhard Engels - in the book, HELP!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done, Burkeman says: 'Extremist approaches to life, Engels notes, have the virtue of clarity. If you have a drink problem, and decide never to touch another drop, your personal rule is unambiguous: there isn't a slippery slope. "You can cross this line, if you decide," he writes, "but you can't do it by accident or by imperceptible degree." Usually, though, extremism demands too much of us: we want to cut back on drinking and still savour good beer, or go running more often without threatening cherished Sundays in bed. Choose a moderate goal and then stick to it with an extremist's zeal.'

Often, going 'cold turkey' on unhealthy habits or throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into new health-boosting behaviours only leaves us disappointed as we beat ourselves up about failing to stick to our strict fitness regime every day, going teetotal or cutting indulgences from our diet.

Added to this is our confusion surrounding what's best practice. The advice on health habits seemingly changes weekly, with scientific research continuously producing new evidence and new rules. At times, it's hard to keep pace with the change in thinking. But, the principle of moderation is a recurring theme - with cardiologists recently suggesting that high intensity exercise, such as marathons, should be limited and that the best route to a healthy long life was via a routine of moderate physical activity and, only this month, a study finding that women who drink beer in moderation are at a 30% lower risk for a heart attack compared to women who drink beer heavily and women who don't drink beer at all.

Middle pace

Extreme changes are a recipe for disaster and if you set a goal that's attainable, you will stick to it. So, by adhering to a balanced diet and moderation in size of portion, for example, you are far more likely to benefit in the long term. Diets that focus on fasting, an exercise programme that demands a commitment to military-style marathon training and the elimination of certain food groups from our diet are often not the best (or easiest) route to a long-term healthier way of life for the majority of us. Similarly, crash and fad diets, detoxes and juice cleanses can often result in vast fluctuations in weight and is not a healthy route to a fitter you. Often, it's the small changes or tweaks in our lifestyle that can make the difference.

So, once you've resolved to adopt a healthy way of life - which is the easy bit - you need to know that it will be a sustainable and successful journey, so try to avoid making too many changes at once. Resolve to cut out the bad and bring in the good and maintain this at an easy pace.

The fact is, there is no fast route to a healthier lifestyle - and, by making small changes, at least you know you are travelling in the right direction. By viewing a healthier lifestyle as a destination, then you can consider the measures you take as the journey. Mostly, you will hog the middle lane, occasionally, you may step it up and accelerate a little but, at other times, you may wish to simply take your foot off the pedal. When you err and fall off the road to this healthier lifestyle, you at least know that it was only the day before that you were 100% committed to your healthier way of life!

So, if you exercise regularly, eat sensibly, drink less, maintain a decent weight and don't smoke you will improve your health. 'Every thing in moderation' may be a often-mocked, age-old adage, once heard solely from the mouths of grandmothers and ageing relatives, but the concept is now very much a modern one - but, this time, it's with a healthy twist.

Baby steps


  • If fruit and vegetables are not regularly included in your meals, then build up to the necessary quota by adding to your intake bit by bit. The "Eat a Rainbow" campaign suggests we should be eating two fruit and at least five vegetables a day from five different colour groups in order to benefit us nutritionally [see image].
  • If you enjoy a glass or two of red wine with your meal, then cut it down to just the one - or drink alcohol only at weekends. Enjoying an adult beverage or two in moderation is fine as long as you're not pregnant and don't have any health conditions that require you to abstain
  • If committing to an hour of exercise a day is proving too difficult, then reduce this to 30 minutes, but do factor in other ways to improve your fitness such as walking to work rather than taking the bus, taking the stairs or invest in a standing desk. Inactivity has been linked to increased risks of heart diseasetype 2 diabetes, cancer and even depression so, by increasing the time you spend getting fit by an extra five minutes a week - or by finding alternative ways to a healthier lifestyle - it will soon become a habit and you'll wonder how you ever survived without it!
  • DO NOT demonise unhealthy snacks and chocolate and so on, but DO avoid storing them in your kitchen cupboard. A report in The Lancet recently revealed that a child born in Japan today will have a longer, healthier life than one born in any other country on earth - including the UK, which did not even make the top 20 countries in the study's findings. This was put down to many things but family food habits included small bowls and small portions, avoiding having a 'main meal' and never having "treats" in the house. The Telegraph [1] reports: 'The ancient Japanese saying: "He who has his stomach full only 80 per cent will not need a doctor", sums up the sense of moderation: perhaps it's not surprising that Japanese people, on average, consume fewer daily calories than other developed countries.' So, invest in some moderately sized plates - and you'll eat a lot less!




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