Let’s Exercise: The Kaizen Way

Let’s Exercise: The Kaizen Way


How to take small steps to create big changes in your health

    When we are faced with making a change, there are two roads we can take. There’s the  quick and dramatic approach or the slow and steady approach. You can see examples of this fast, short-cut route regularly in the health and exercise field. It’s the cabbage soup diet to lose 10 pounds in a week or the 30 day butts and guts exercise routine promising a body transformation. While some results may occur, the more likely case is we’ll quit before the end or, if we even make it to the end, the results are fleeting and unsustainable. Big steps that create radical change is often why every year 80% of resolutions fail. In the business world, they call this drastic process of change innovation. The goal is to reach for the largest results in the smallest amount of time.  It’s big, it’s flashy, and it’s very risky. 

    A safer, and more sustainable option to create change is by taking small steps. I mean; REALLY. SMALL. STEPS. So small, it’s practically impossible to fail at completing them. This process of taking really small steps to create change is called Kaizen and was created by the Japanese.  You can read more by picking up Robert Maurer’s book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. This article is based largely on his book. 

    Any change, even a positive one, can be scary. Big, dramatic changes can heighten our fear completely blocking our success. By taking small steps, we are able to disarm the body’s fear response. Physiologically, small steps allow us to rewire the nervous system to bypass the fight or flight response, unlock our creativity, and create new connections between neurons laying down the pathway for new habits. 

    But how can we implement this principle of taking small steps into changing our exercise habits? Research has shown us repeatedly that consistent exercise is the key to good health. And yet the Centers for Disease Control says 80% of Americans are not getting the minimum amount of exercise. If exercise is not a regular part of your life, the small steps of Kaizen can help you slowly, without fear, change your life to include exercise, and in turn, improve your health. 

Let’s get started!

Step One: Ask Small Questions

    Our hippocampus, located in the brain, decides what information to store and what to retrieve. The main criterion for storage is repetition so asking a question over and over gives the brain no choice but to pay attention and begin to create answers. Our brains love to answer trivia questions!  Small questions allow the brain to focus on problem solving and action without any fear. Ask the question frequently and the brain will store the question, turn it over, and generate interesting and useful responses.  Here are some examples of questions to ask yourself regarding exercise.

    “How can I incorporate a few more minutes of movement into my daily routine?”

    “What is one task I could eliminate or outsource so I have time to exercise?” 

    “What benefits of exercise do I want to experience?” 

Here are some sample questions to ask about your health in general.

    “If health were my first priority, what would I be doing differently today?”

    “What is one way I can remind myself to drink more water?”

    Remember that you are reprogramming the brain and writing new pathways which takes time.  Try to get into the habit of asking your question at the same time every day.  For example, ask yourself when you get in the car to go to work each day, as your having your first cup of coffee, or during your lunch break. Write your question down on a post-it note and place it somewhere you’ll see it each day.  See what responses your brain comes up with and be open to the ideas that appear. You may find yourself generating creative answers that make it easier to add in exercise than you initially thought.

Step Two: Think Small Thoughts

    Research has show that visualization is a powerful tool for success. Mind sculpture is a enhanced version of visualization that seeks to create total, but imaginary, sensory immersion. If your goal is to go to the gym once a week to perform resistance training, can you picture not only what the gym would look like on the inside, but what it sounds like and smells like? Pick a particular exercise machine in your mind and feel the pad or handles. Imagine and feel your muscles moving and contracting. Feel your breathing speeding up and your body temperature rising. Can you feel the sense of accomplishment after performing that set? 

     Just by visualizing yourself at the gym performing a workout, your brain’s chemistry begins to change. New connections between cells are made and new pathways are laid down  to create a new set of motor or verbal skills you’ll need to actually engage in this new task. These small thoughts can help us approach a difficult task using purely mental rehearsal in order to avoid the unproductive fear. So next time you’re stuck in traffic or a boring meeting, picture yourself exercising and you’ll be more prepared for when the time actually comes. 

Step Three: Take Small Actions

    The typical New Years resolution is repeated 10 years in a row, with 25% of these being abandoned with in the first 15 weeks and dusted off again the following year.  Why are so many of us unsuccessful at creating change in our lives? Change is hard, and as we learned above, creates fear which impedes our success. If we take small steps, we can tiptoe past the fear and our resistance to change disappears. 

    Small actions should take very little time or money. They should be so small, it would be hard to fail. I know what you’re think though; “These steps are so small, I’ll never reach my goal at this pace!” The alternative appears to be to start big, quit after a few weeks, and never reach the goal. Aren’t small steps better than no steps at all? Plus, after a successful step one, it may lead to to a comfortable second step, then a third, and so on until the change is mastered.

    Here are some examples of small steps you can take to start adding more movement into your daily life. Before you know it, you’ll be exercising and actually enjoying it! 

    • Park a few spots further away and walk into the store. 
    • Take one flight of stairs, then hop on the elevator. 
    • During your daily walk, go one house further than you normally do. 
    • Take the long way back from lunch. 
    • Set your alarm once during the day to remind you to get up from your desk and stretch.    

    Try adding in one small step and sticking with it for a few weeks.  When you’re ready, try adding another small step. Remember that your goal is to keep these steps small so you sneak past the fear of change and slowly begin to build new habits. 

Step Four: Solve Small Problems

    It’s inevitable that hurdles will arrive on your road to change. They key is to spot the small annoyances early on to avoid painful remedies. Don’t ignore the subtle warning signs!  If the check engine light goes on in your car, the sooner you drive it to the repair man, the smaller the problem is to fix. If you continue to drive around and ignore the warning light, the problem may be more expensive and take more time to fix. Watch out for these 3 blind spots:

    Blind Spot #1: At the Beginning of your path to change 

    Blind Spot #2: Near the Finish Line 

    Blind Spot #3: An Overwhelming Crisis

    Signs along your exercise journey to watch out for include any aches and pains that don’t go away, feeling tired all the time, changes in your sleep patterns, digestive issues, heart or breathing issues. If you experience any of these warning signs, don’t ignore them.  Seek the help of a professional who can help resolve the problem and advise you on how to get back on track. 

Step Five: Bestow Small Rewards

    Small rewards are a form of recognition for a job well done.  It’s important to pat ourselves, or someone else, on the back when they’ve completed a small step towards change. This reward does not have to come only once you’ve accomplished the end goal, but small rewards along the way can help fuel our commitment to continuing the journey. These rewards should meet 3 qualities: 1) Should be appropriate to the goal, 2) Should be appropriate to the person, 3) Should be free or inexpensive. 

    Examples include: 5 extra minutes reading the paper or relaxing in the tub. If your partner is on board with your goals, see if they will perform one of your chores for you as a reward or give you 10 extra minutes of quiet time without interruptions. 

Step Six: Identify Small Moments

    So often, we are worried about the past or focused on the future and we miss the small moments. Stop. Take a breath and look around. It’s often in these moments that we find creative breakthroughs or realize how far we’ve come in our journey to change. People who are most successful at improving their health habits are those who can transform exercise or eating well into a source of excitement and pride. Did you have an “A” day with your exercise? GREAT!  Be sure to congratulate yourself and allow yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment after a hard earned day. 

    Exercise is a journey towards good health. If we don’t stop to smell the roses along the way, it will be a miserable journey. The reward in the end, good health, is so worth the trip! We might as well enjoy each step along the way.  


    Hopefully, these small steps will help you begin to add exercise into your life. If need more information on the Kaizen principles mentioned here, be sure to check out Robert Maurer’s book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. If you need help or accountability reaching your exercise goal, that is what we are here for at AIM Human Performance. Reach out to us to get started or let us know where you are located and we can refer you to a personal trainer in your area who follows these principles.