By Amy Surdam, FNP
“Incremental progress is the secret to life’s successes.”
I’m a firm believer that small, incremental progress is the secret to life’s successes.
This is how I’ve managed to finish reports, complete projects, and heck, even finish the laundry. Wash, let sit in the dryer for a few days, fold, let sit on the counter for a few more days, put away. Success!
When I joined the Wyoming National Guard in 2002, I could not even run a mile. I had labeled myself as “not a runner” and even quit track multiple times in high school. I knew that in order to stay in the military that I would need to complete a two- mile run in a certain amount of time every year. My philosophy of small, incremental progress had not yet been tested, but it’s exactly what I did. I ran a half a mile one day, then I did it again, then I ran a little further, and a little further. The key was consistency, staying with it, pushing myself just a little but further each day. Within two months, I could run five miles. After four months, I ran my first half marathon.
I think the same principle can be applied to diet. In my experience, I have often seen an “all or none” approach to eating healthy that commonly fails. People will decide to cut out all carbs and processed foods and make it a few days or, in my case, until dinner, before going back to old habits. However, it is important to recognize that most healthy eaters do not develop eating patterns overnight.
According to The Permanente Journal Spring 2013, a plant based diet “can help reduce the number of medications (taken) to treat a variety of chronic conditions, lower body weight, decreased risk of cancer, and a reduction in their risk of death from ischemic heart disease.” Some of these chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease are the most common yet preventable diseases out there. As of 2012, shockingly half, yes half of all adults in the United States had a preventable, chronic disease.
Let’s just talk about obesity for a moment. By 2014, more than one-third of adults and one in six youths aged 2 to 19 years was obese. By 2030, it is projected that half of all adults will be obese. Unless we all do something to change that. Or at least change ourselves with one small, incremental step at a time.
It really is that simple. Start with a walk. Your smart phone has an app that tracks your steps. The goal should be 10,000 steps a day. If you can’t do that, do 5,000, or 500, but just do it. Then tomorrow do a little more, then a little more. Have walking meetings instead of sitting meetings, walk while you talk on the phone, walk your dog, walk to the store, park at the end of the parking lot and walk to the building. You get my drift. If you want to add strength training or other forms of exercise then fantastic!
Eat Plant Based Food
Plant based food means mostly vegetables and some fruit, nuts, legumes, and seeds. Dairy and meat should be limited or even eliminated if you have the will to do it. Here’s what incremental progress might look like for you: cut soda for a month, then cut out processed food for a month, then the next month you have two lattes a week instead of five; eventually you are making meals with little to no meat. The diet thing is hard, but it is one of the most important changes you will ever make in your life for your health.
Keep a food diary for a few weeks and see what you are really consuming (do not underestimate your portions during this assessment!). Track calories, grams of protein, and maybe even sodium. There are free apps for this that do the hard parts for you such as My Fitness Pal. Try to eat well most days and if you mess up, just start again the next day. I do want to acknowledge that eating well while traveling or in constant meetings is tough.
There are donuts, cookies, and pizza and no vegetables for miles. I’m not kidding when I tell you that last week while traveling around the state, I did not have a vegetable for three days. I came home, went to the store, and have had plenty since. The point: each day, try to do a little bit better than the day before.
Decrease Salt Consumption
The great thing about a plant based diet is that there is little sodium in it. Processed and fast foods have an incredible amount of sodium that is unnecessary and even harmful, especially for those with high blood pressure and other heart disease.
This one is old news, but it is still true. There is nothing, nothing, nothing good for you about smoking. In fact, it is deadly. One out of five deaths every year is caused by smoking. Please stop. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW to reach the Wyoming Quit Line for help.
Finally, Drink Less Alcohol
The recommendation is up to one glass a day for women and up to two glasses a day for men to help further reduce the risk of disease. Of course, no alcohol is an option too. If you need help decreasing your alcohol consumption, please contact your health care provider.
To end this, I want to share a little story of my mom who is the poster child for incremental changes. About two years ago she was considered obese and had unhealthy eating habits. She was constantly tired, winded, and suffered from migraines. She made a decision to change her diet and begin exercising. She started with small walks and has worked her way up to about 15,000 steps a day. After a while, she added Zumba.
She also joined Weight Watchers and while she is not perfect, she is consistent. In the last two years she has lost 50 pounds. The weight loss has transformed her. She has energy, a social life, and a better wardrobe than I have. The best part: she hasn’t had a migraine for more than a year and a half. She’s proof that small, incremental progress really works.