Baby Steps for Lasting Change

Aug 17, 2023 | Patients

by Brent Hearn • 

Lee, a work acquaintance you’d see once a year at a conference, used to be woefully out of shape. He’d be winded after the short walk from session to session at the convention center, and by the end of the day, he was running on fumes. 

You missed last year’s conference, and the previous year’s was canceled due to Covid, so it’s been three years since you’ve seen Lee. When you see him at this year’s conference, you almost don’t recognize him. He’s in noticeably better shape, he seems to have energy to spare, and you spot him on the treadmill in the tiny hotel gym on your way to the continental breakfast.

When you ask him what gives, he replies, “I started walking five minutes a day. Once I could do that without too much trouble, I upped it to six, and so on, until before I knew it, I could walk a 5k! I cut out a couple of desserts one week, added a couple of vegetables the next, and…well, you get the picture. I went from pre-diabetic to feeling amazing, and that was two and a half years ago. From there, I just kept it up.”

Does the story above—or one like it, at least—sound familiar? Many of us have lost “x” number of pounds or been super gung-ho about a new workout program, only to eventually fall back into old routines, losing most (perhaps all) of the progress we’d made. If this has happened to you, you’re not alone; about 90% of those who drop a significant amount of weight gain all or most of it back.

That’s right. You can diet and exercise and (quite literally, in a sense) work your butt off, and it’s still very statistically likely that you’ll end up right back where you were. Your body sees your old weight—even if it’s not a healthy weight—as your “weight set point,” and it will fight tooth and nail to protect it.

But every now and then, we’ll meet a Lee—a person who has somehow managed to translate a goal into lasting change (or who at least seems to be on the path to doing so). So what’s the secret? What sets the Lees of the world apart from the rest of us?

Some say it’s incremental change—or what legendary British cycling coach Sir David Brailsford calls “the aggregation of marginal gains.” The idea is fairly simple: If you apply enough tiny, continuous improvements toward a given goal, the results will be significant in the long run.

So what exactly does this mean in a practical sense?

Avoid Yo-Yo and Fad Dieting

Read this over and over until it sinks in: The on-again, off-again, diet-of-the-month lifestyle actively works against your efforts to create lasting change. Instead, focus on small, manageable changes. If you’re having dessert three nights a week, how about cutting out one of those this week? It doesn’t seem like much, but if you start small and gradually reduce the number of calorie bombs you’re consuming, that small change could become a consistent lifestyle choice.

Make It Easy to Do the Right Thing

Making healthy choices in the moment can be hard. (That pint of ice cream is calling your name, and those chocolate chip cookies know all your secrets.) So make those decisions ahead of time. When you go to the grocery store—or the grocery store’s website—bypass the stuff that hinders your progress and stock up on the foods that’ll help you reach your goal. (That’s not to say you can’t treat yourself on occasion, but it’s important to be honest with yourself about how you’re defining “on occasion.”)

Make the World Your Gym

You don’t have to be an elite marathoner or die-hard CrossFitter to make lasting gains in your health and fitness. (Though if either activity is your thing, you do you!) There are countless opportunities to create a healthier version of yourself if you just pay attention. Stop fighting for the parking place closest to the door; instead, park in the back of the lot—safety permitting, of course—and walk. Take the stairs at work…at the doctor’s office…wherever there are stairs. That lawn-mowing/leaf-raking/gutter-cleaning/shower scrubbing you’ve been putting off? Do it! Taken alone, any one of these activities isn’t much, but doing a lot of them—and doing them consistently—adds up!

Catch Some Shuteye

A lack of sleep negatively affects cortisol levels and decision-making ability. Both of these factors can work against you in your battle against the bulge.

Consult a Professional

Want to give yourself the best chance at success on the nutrition front? Consult a professional. A nutritionist or dietitian can help you formulate a plan to get you—and keep you—on the road to healthy eating. It may be one of the easiest, most impactful things you can do for yourself. (Baby steps don’t get much more baby-steppy than making a simple phone call.)


Michigan Medicine: Weighing the Facts: The Tough Truth About Weight Loss

Cleveland Clinic: Why People Diet, Lose Weight and Gain It All Back

Harvard Business Review: How 1% Performance Improvements Led to Olympic Gold

Doctorpedia: Small and Incremental Changes for a Lasting Effect