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Small Changes to Get Healthier

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Richard Laliberte

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To be successful at any big undertaking — starting a new career, salvaging a shaky marriage, mastering a foreign language — you have to "give it 110 percent," as the saying goes. But when it comes to what may be the most important change of all — revitalizing your health — you may be better off giving only 10 percent and not worrying too much about the other proverbial 100. "You're more likely to succeed by making small changes," says Catherine Champagne, Ph.D., professor of research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Louisiana State University System. "If you totally overhaul your diet or start an ambitious exercise program, you're less likely to stick with it."

Micro-improvements do more than chip away at a larger objective — they accomplish plenty on their own. Some of these are cumulative; do several and you'll see an even bigger benefit. Here are (count 'em) 10 small shifts that can reward you with a big health payoff.

1. Smile at the Scale

The small change: Lose 10 percent of your body weight. If you're 5' 5" and weigh 160 pounds, shaving off just 10 percent (16 pounds) will take you from the "overweight" category to a normal body mass index (a measure of your height and weight in relation to each other). If you weigh 180, losing 18 pounds moves you below the dangerous threshold of clinical obesity. What's more, it's a manageable goal. "We find that people who lose just 1 percent of their body weight per week can lose 10 percent in two to three months without feeling they're making a sacrifice," says Maciej Buchowski, Ph.D., director of the Energy Balance Core Laboratory at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The big gains: Dropping pounds — and 10 percent is the initial target touted by the National Institutes of Health — will do more than let you go down a size or more in your jeans. It can also lower blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides, making you a less likely candidate for heart attack or stroke. You'll also cut your chances of becoming diabetic. In fact, in a recent multicenter study, people who lost just a little over two pounds lowered their diabetes risk by 16 percent. And in new research at the University of California, San Francisco, heavy women with incontinence who lost somewhat less than 10 percent of their body weight reduced leakage 47 percent after six months (compared with a control group who received only educational support and saw a 28 percent drop in symptoms).

2. Take Your Dog for a Walk

The small change: Up your exercise 10 percent. Even if you're completely sedentary, your body still burns at least 1,000 calories a day (depending on your weight and age). So boosting that by 10 percent translates to a mere 100 calories — an amount you could expend by taking Fido out for a 28-minute walk. No dog? Mow the lawn with a hand-powered mower for 14 minutes, or walk up and down stairs for 15 minutes.

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