It was over a decade ago when I read a magazine article proposing a simple body weight-only routine that offered all-day energy. I was overweight and waking up tired every single day, so it couldn’t hurt to try it, right?
Most of the exercises used small dumbbells to start, but there was one that stopped me cold: the dreaded push-up.
Even starting on my knees I couldn’t lever my weight upwards, and holding a plank for more than a few seconds without my midsection dropping was impossible. Rather than giving up, this seemed like a good time to invent an exercise compromise that would work the same muscle groups. I had hoped that by doing this, real push-ups might follow.
I laid face-down on the floor with my hands where they would be during a push-up, and I pushed for a few seconds at a time to make one complete rep. I didn’t know it at the moment, but this was very close to a Japanese practice called Kaizen.
In the book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, author Richard Maurer describes kaizen as either using small steps to improve a habit, process, or product, or using small moments to inspire new products and inventions.
In the book he describes how he sat in with doctors who told their overweight patients to exercise for 30 minutes daily. Many of them failed to maintain a workout regimen, but most didn’t bother to start one simply because the idea was so big and daunting.
Maurer asked if he could make a suggestion at one such meeting, and proposed that a patient might walk in place for one minute each night. Surprised, the patient agreed to try it. At their next meeting, not only had she successfully completed the very minimal workout, she was eager to find new ways to make small changes.
When it comes to personal care, it makes sense to ask specific, targeted questions. For example: Instead of asking, “How can I lose 10 pounds?” or “How do get healthier?” we can say things like, “I want to drink more water. How can I drink one additional sip of water per day?” The first invites a blank stare, but the second is more creative and fanciful. It allows for a small step or change. And many small steps lead to big results.
My unintentional kaizen approach to calisthenics was successful; I was eventually able to do four sets of twelve kneeling push-ups, and on a really good day, I could do two or three “real” push-ups.
Those bodyweight-only exercises built my muscle strength and aerobic capacity. In fact, the exercise bike I used to dread (which I became wheezy on after five minutes) became a regular fitness tool for me. I lost weight and my health improved.
Then, I resolved to drink more water, both because I needed to and because I wanted to lose a bit more weight.
The kaizen method of small steps helped me here, too. I took it step by step, starting with leaving a mason jar on the kitchen counter to remind me to drink. Before eating, or if I was feeling listless, water was the first thing I turned to. Feeling slightly full before meals seemed to help me not eat huge portions, and I lost weight by doing it.
Now I leave an empty bottle near the front door as a reminder to carry water with me as I go. A non-accusatory note taped to the cabinet where the snacks are (“Are you thirsty right now?”) invites a quick check-in about what I really need (usually more water, usually not more snacks).
For me, it’s the small things that really help in the long-term. Asking myself about the smallest action possible to fix an overwhelming problem seemed foolish until I tried it. As it turns out, it’s the key to making major and lasting changes.