This year, your first resolution might be to rethink New Year’s resolutions altogether. Instead of grand gestures (lose 25 pounds, exercise every day), think baby steps. It’s not a cop-out—it’s a wildly effective means of creating lasting change, says M.J. Ryan, author of AdaptAbility (Broadway, 2009). “Making a change takes focus; it requires your brain to not be habitual—but your brain is designed to work habitually because it conserves energy,” she says. “So do one thing, nail it as a habit, then do the next thing.” Small changes are a great way to start, she adds, because the quick success motivates you to keep going. Consider adopting one or two of the ideas below and let them become habits before choosing another. In a year’s time, you’ll have traveled a great distance toward greater health for yourself (and the planet), one baby step at a time.
Get up, stand up.
Resolve to stand more during the day—during phone calls, while watching the weather report, on the train. Sitting all day reduces blood levels of lipoprotein lipase, which breaks down fat so it’s available to be burned. This can lower metabolism and increase fat retention. Plus, standing burns more calories than sitting.
Cut TV time in half.
Researchers at the University of Vermont found that adults who reduced their TV time by half burned an extra 120 calories per day—enough to add up to a pound of weight loss in one month.
Lift and strengthen.
A few times a week, resolve to lift weights, work with resistance bands, or perform weight-bearing exercise such as yoga or tai chi. Research shows regular weight workouts boost metabolism, increase bone density, reduce depression symptoms, mitigate glucose levels, and lessen arthritis pain.
Plan it out.
Don’t just think about exercising: Write down what actions you’ll take to get more exercise in the week ahead. This strategy brought success to sedentary college students in a 2008 study. The takeaway? Set aside ten minutes on Sunday nights to plot out your exercise for the week.
Dine on salad plates.
Big plates equal big portions. That’s what researchers at Cornell University discovered when they held an ice cream social for nutritionists—the pros served themselves more calories than they realized when they used big bowls. Cut your calories effortlessly by eating from smaller plates and bowls.
Schedule a weekly lunch date with a rotating cast of characters—your spouse, close friends, coworkers, anyone you’d like to get to know better. Studies show people with strong, diverse social networks live longer, experience less mental decline as they age, and have greater resistance to infectious disease.
Drink before you dine.
Down two 8-ounce cups of water right before eating a meal and you’re likely to eat significantly fewer calories at that meal. Researchers found that regular premeal water drinkers lost more weight and kept it off better over time than nondrinkers. Plus, being well hydrated (which most of us aren’t) has a slew of health benefits, from increased energy to better digestion.
Become a choosy meat-eater.
Instead of habitually eating some form of meat at every meal, plan to eat vegetarian just one day a week. If every American ate meat-free one day out of seven, we’d save the same amount of carbon dioxide as taking more than eight million cars off the road. When you do eat meat, spring for organic, pastured chicken, pork, or beef, which offer more omega-3 essential fats and fewer hormones and pesticide residues.
Make a habit of saying a simple thank you for the food on your plate and everyone who played a role in getting it there. It will help cultivate gratitude and a deeper connection to your food and where it came from.
Drink your tea or coffee outside.
Traditional Chinese Medicine holds that morning energy is the purest; getting outside helps you reenergize in a meaningful way. It will also get you in touch with the seasons and your immediate environment. (When it’s too cold or wet, look out the window.)
Screen your calls.
If you don’t recognize a number, let it go to voice mail. If it’s a friend or family member, consider whether it’s a good time to talk before you answer. “Not answering the phone most of the time saves me probably five hours a week and makes me happier because my attention is less divided,” says Meagan Francis, thehappiestmom.com blogger and author of a soon-to-be-released book of the same name.
Make creativity dates.
Instead of waiting (and waiting) for flashes of inspiration, schedule a weekly date to exercise your own creativity, whether it’s a sewing class, a craft night with friends, or just an hour to pursue a hobby. The goal isn’t to produce a work of art, but to let your mind expand in new ways and continue to grow, literally. Activating the brain by learning novel skills over time enhances memory and helps new brain cells survive, research shows.
Play soothing music.
Prepare for stressful times by finding music you like with a slow rhythmic beat—around 70 beats per minute. How do mellow tunes soothe? A 2009 study found the heart synchronizes to music’s tempo. Good choices: Most works by Mozart, “Walk On By” by Dionne Warwick, “Constant Craving” by k.d. lang, and “Midnight At The Oasis” by Maria Muldaur.
Check your tires
To avoid underinflation, check tire pressure every month during the summer and every other week during the winter, when tires lose about 1 psi for every 10-degree drop in temperature. You'll increase fuel efficiency by 3 percent, improve performance and safety, prolong the life of your tires, and reduce the amount of greenhouse gas CO2 your car emits.
Use recycled toilet paper
If everyone in America replaced just one four-pack of conventional toilet paper with a four-pack of recycled toilet paper, we'd save 600 billion Btus of energy, preserve 356 million gallons of water, and prevent the release of 37,000 tons of CO2 and 60,600 pounds of other pollutants. Imagine if we all made the switch permanently.
Detox your cleaning routine.
A recent study linked frequent use of conventional cleaning products to an increased risk for breast cancer. Switch to nontoxic cleaners or make your own. Try this easy recipe from green housekeeping maven Annie B. Bond: Mix ½ teaspoon of washing soda (a stronger cousin of baking soda available in the laundry aisle), a dollop of dishwashing soap, and two cups of hot water. Combine ingredients in a spray bottle and shake until well mixed; use like any all-purpose spray cleaner.
Whenever possible, don’t print documents on paper and file them away. Instead, “print” them to .pdf files and store them on your computer’s hard drive. Mac users can simply click “PDF” on the Print dialog box. PC users need a small piece of (generally) free software, such as CutePDF Writer or doPDF. If you must print, switch your default font from Arial to Century Gothic or Times New Roman—two of the least ink-intensive fonts. This small change can save the average home-computer user about $20 a year in toner costs.