Taking the first small steps before you can reach a big fitness goal

October 13, 2014

DALLAS ó Stand at the edge of the ocean or of a dream, and where youíre going can look pretty far away. Ah, to be there already ó quickly, easily, hardly breaking a sweat in the process.

Alas, thatís not how most dreams are realized. Instead, itís the small steps that get us there. You cannot, after all, lose 100 pounds without losing one; run a marathon without running a mile; heal an injury without moving the smallest of muscles.

"People have to understand thatís how life works," says Danielle Girdano, president of Dífine Sculpting & Nutrition. "Itís not like in the movies where one motivational song later, you hit your goal. It is a journey and takes a lot of steps to get there."

Seven years ago, Girdano weighed 396 pounds. Her body fat hovered around 67 percent. She smoked two-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day. She was 29 years old, and a doctorís visit scared her into changing her life. She began walking because, she says, "it was all I could do."

She now weighs 168 pounds and is a personal trainer who helps other people take their first and second and maybe come at least close to that 10,000th step every day.

"People will drink this supplement or take that pill and want change instantaneously," she says. "With small steps, thereís commitment."

When clients come to health coach and certified trainer Julie Gannon with "the big goal," she commends them for looking ahead. Then she asks what the first step might be to reaching it. The key, says Gannon, who recently moved to San Antonio from Dallas, is setting smart goals that are measurable, attainable and realistic. Be consistent with the small steps, she stresses, and "youíll eventually get there."

But people being people, and residents of a quick-fix society at that, theyíre not always content with such a simplistic approach. What about everything else?, they ask Gannon. What do they need to start or stop or eliminate or put on hold?

"Itís important to have success when you first start and then continue to build," she says. "Itís motivating: ĎHey, I did that and I can do it again.í

"If you try to tackle the mountain all at once, you wonít be successful. But tackling the first thing and getting over the hurdle makes the second a little easier."

When a group of women told Gannon of their four-month goal of walking a 5K, for instance, she asked, "What do we need to get there?" They began walking for 10 minutes a day, then incorporating more movement into their days. Gannon also set another goal, albeit a difficult one: eliminating sugar.

"Itís a big first step, but only one step at a time," she says. "If you can cut that out, it reduces your craving for starchy things and sugary things."

After a few weeks working toward that goal, she had them add another: eating a vegetable with every meal. Six months into their journey and with the 5K behind them, the women "look back and there are things they do now they never could have imagined."

One week, one came in and announced, "On Saturday, I had cake, and it was way too sweet."

"Theyíre laughing at themselves," Gannon says. "ĎI canít believe I thought something was too sweet. I used to be made of sugar!í"

What makes small steps so powerful, Girdano says, is that nobody can take them for you. "You have to take the stairs and climb every step. What they do for you is give you those little confidence nudges."

Small steps are especially imperative because they allow the body to heal, which physical therapists continually stress to their patients.

"I was just explaining to a pilot who had rotator-cuff surgery about the baby steps that begin with barely moving his arms," says Terry Robinson, an athletic trainer and physical therapist. "Itís easily going to be an 8- to 10-month process."

Robinson, who owns Grapevine Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine, in suburban Dallas, is also part of the athletic training staff for USA Diving. He works not only with divers, but with other athletes, too ó not necessarily their individual form, but breaking down the movements.

"When youíre injured, your muscle tightens, your joint tightens," he says. "You regain flexibility of the joints and work on strength. In divers, itís the normal arm-down position and the sports-specific position."

Seventeen muscles attach to the shoulder blade, he says. Four make up the rotator cuff, which primarily functions to stabilize the shoulder joint.

"One thing we might do in therapy is isolate those small muscles before we can expect the larger to get stronger. Itís easy for us to say weíre going to strengthen the bicep and deltoid, but those are larger muscles."

For a diver, small stabilizing muscles help keep the shoulder together, he says, and thus help at that crucial point of impact ó hitting the water.

"There are a lot of very specific exercises to train the smaller muscles at the shoulder blade to make the others stronger," he says. "If I explain to the athletes real well what the purpose of small, basic exercises are and how they fit into the big picture, thatís making Part A as important as Part Z."

The more experienced an athlete, the more the appreciation for small steps, Robinson says.

"Athletes at the Olympic level are different from high school or college," he says. "Theyíve worked for maybe eight years to be at the Games and know those small steps ó every single piece of food put into their mouth, every training session, every supplement they take ó all adds up."

What makes these small steps especially powerful, Gannon says, is that they can be applied to just about any goal set, any dream contemplated.

"Suddenly, things donít seem impossible for you anymore," she says. "It becomes, ĎOh, yeah, Iíve got this.í"



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