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Making healthy changes — one small step at a time

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"A JOURNEY of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu offered this thought thousands of years ago.

Then people resisted change. Today, we still tend to resist change – and anything that challenges our status quo. I've chosen a career focused on helping people make healthy choices to improve their health, and their lives. My experience is that most people – including me – can be hesitant about making changes for ourselves.

I also serve as a Canyon Ranch Institute (CRI) Life Enhancement Program, Core Team member. In this program, we talk a lot about sustainable positive change in all aspects of life, including the way we think, our emotions, our physical bodies, and our spiritual selves.

The CRI Life Enhancement Program uses the “small steps” approach. Let me give you some examples. When life is busy and happiness seems far away, it’s easy to look for instant gratification, such as that second or third beer before dinner, or a big dish of ice cream rather than a healthy lunch. It’s no wonder that ads for fast-acting “miracle” drugs and cures get attention. It seems like no one wants to wait for change to happen.

So why do we encourage CRI Life Enhancement Program participants to take small steps to their goals? Here’s why: Do you remember that crash diet, New Year’s resolution, or other “cold turkey” solution you attempted in the past? Chances are, if the change you were hoping for was too dramatic or too drastic, your good intentions soon fell by the wayside.

A “small steps” approach emphasizes achievable goals that result in a sense of success. When we feel successful, we have increased enthusiasm and optimism about taking the next small step and making even more healthy changes.

Maria Malcolm, Ph.D. (center), talks with participants Linda Brown (left) and Tiffany Brown (right) during the first session of the CRI Life Enhancement Program in Savannah. Maria is a member of the Core Team that includes health professionals in integrative health, nutrition, exercise, and sense of purpose.
  • Maria Malcolm, Ph.D. (center), talks with participants Linda Brown (left) and Tiffany Brown (right) during the first session of the CRI Life Enhancement Program in Savannah. Maria is a member of the Core Team that includes health professionals in integrative health, nutrition, exercise, and sense of purpose.

In the CRI Life Enhancement Program, whether a participant focuses on exercise, social engagement, mindfulness, or healthy eating, a gradual approach using small steps is easier to integrate into everyday life. For example, an exercise plan that requires two hours of exercise seven days per week sounds daunting from the word “go.” Alternatively, exercising 30 minutes at a time, five times per week can feel more do-able. A person who has not been getting much, if any, physical activity is far more likely to get started by taking a small step.

At the CRI Healthy Garden at Trustees' Garden, some of the volunteer gardeners find they are not the only newcomers. Then, making new friends is enjoyable as digging and planting.
  • At the CRI Healthy Garden at Trustees' Garden, some of the volunteer gardeners find they are not the only newcomers. Then, making new friends is enjoyable as digging and planting.

Here are some other small steps people can take on their individual journeys to better health:

Choose one healthy vegetable per day in place of a fried food.

Substitute water for soda once a day.

Take the stairs instead of the elevator.

Add five minutes a day into your daily schedule for calm reflection and deep breathing.

Say at least one kind thing to yourself every morning. This might be: “You are a good friend.”

A very powerful kind of change is when you do something you’re never imagined doing. For CRI Life Enhancement Program participants, new experiences include practicing yoga, cooking with a new grain (such as quinoa), or signing up for a 5K walk or run. Is there something you’ve always been curious about but hesitated to try? We’re not talking about skydiving!

Enjoying great tasting healthy food is a shared experience during the CRI Life Enhancement Program. Choosing one healthy vegetable per day in place of a fried food is a small step toward healthy change that lasts.
  • Enjoying great tasting healthy food is a shared experience during the CRI Life Enhancement Program. Choosing one healthy vegetable per day in place of a fried food is a small step toward healthy change that lasts.

Let’s say you’re interested in growing your own flowers or vegetables. You could start by taking the small step of going to the CRI Healthy Garden at Trustees’ Garden and meeting people who are new to gardening, as well as people who have a lot of expertise to share.

Sharing a new experience with other people is another important aspect of the CRI Life Enhancement Program, and it may work for you, too. When participants share new experiences (and challenges), they’re actually creating their own personal support network. They cheer each other along for every mile walked, for every bottle of water consumed, and for every healthy choice made.

We like to say that a joy shared is a joy doubled.

Sustainable, healthy change proceeds at a rate that is in tune with nature. Just as fruit trees require years of growth before their first yield, incremental changes may not be apparent to the casual observer. Personal change timelines may require patience. However, as we take small steps and feel their power, we find it easier to build another “small step” goal – and achieve it!

I encourage you to take a small step today and start your journey to a happier, healthier future.

Maria Malcolm, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and Core Team member of the Canyon Ranch Institute Life Enhancement Program in Savannah. The CRI Life Enhancement Program is offered in partnership with Curtis V. Cooper Primary Health Care, and with Connect Savannah and Charles H. and Rosalie Morris.

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