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. (Join Prevention’s 21-Day Challenge to lose weight and feel amazing by summer!)
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 for 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.
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 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 on 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.
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.
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 choices like baby carrots, sautéed broccoli, oranges, and other fresh fruits and veggies.
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 intake of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables while cutting back on trans and saturated fats. Sign up for Prevention’s FREE weeklyweight loss newsletters.
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, PhD, 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.” (Try this eating meditation with your next treat.)
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.)
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 on-line 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.
A regular cup with a dash of milk and even a little sugar has hundreds of fewer calories then the blended drinks, which are practically dessert in a cup. One recent study of about 3,000 purchases from 115 coffee shops in New York City found that servings of brewed coffee or tea averaged about 63 calories (including milk and sugar), while the fancier drinks averaged nearly four times more, with 239 calories. A daily habit can translate to an 18-pound gain over a year. Make your own at home with this cold-brew coffee kit or this single-cup manual coffee dripper.
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.