Performing one lone act rarely results in permanent life changes. We inherently know that eating one healthy meal or going for one morning run won’t impact our health very much – especially if that meal is flanked by fast food visits or the run is a trimonthly event. No, a single small act might not do much. But a collection of single small acts – performed continuously – leads to something bigger. It’s long been my belief that achieving personal wellness should not necessarily require making revolutionary life changes, but rather a series of small and progressive ones. We tend to find it difficult to give ourselves permission to make reasonable changes within a culture that glorifies sensationalism (“Change your life in 90 days!” “Lose 20 pounds in two weeks!” “Take control of your happiness after just three chapters!”)
Place a grain of salt atop a cutting board; that one single grain won’t seem like very much. But place another grain atop the cutting board the next day, and another one the day after that, and so on – and eventually you’ll end up with a sizable mound, something that at first didn’t seem all that valuable that but ended up pretty significant. It brings to mind a fable of the power of a penny doubled:
One day a rich merchant said to his young son, “Son, I have an important question to ask you. I will give you the total amount of one penny doubled each day for one month or a million dollars cash right now. Which will you choose?”
The son answers without hesitation, “The million dollars of course father.”
The wise father looks at the boy and with a knowing smile takes out paper and pen. “Son,” he said quietly, “Come sit next to me and learn. Let’s study the power of a penny doubled. Follow how the money accumulates if that one shiny penny is doubled each day for 31 days in a lesson about wealth and patience.”
Believe it or not, you will end up with more than a million dollars – in fact, you’ll end up with over $5 million. The small things – the pennies of our lives – don’t mean much, but an accumulation of them leads to a lifetime of riches.
Except, that’s not entirely true.
Turns out those small, isolated events really do matter, and not just in the long term. Have you noticed that eliminating a single can of soda with lunch changes how you feel that afternoon? Or getting 30 minutes extra sleep one night leads to you waking up more alert and staying alert through work? We don’t have to wait weeks or months for an accumulation: The small stuff has immediate benefits. Don’t buy it? Consider the examples below.
- Drink water.
One of the reasons we turn to water instead of some sugary alternative is because of the long-term health effects of water consumption: It’s cleansing to the body, aids in digestion, and can improve kidney health, joint health and overall mood. But can one solitary drink of water yield any benefits? Actually, yes: After drinking only 300ml of water – just over a single cup – grade school-aged children displayed better memory recall and were able to sustain attention for longer periods of time.
Public assumption is that improvements stemming from meditation happen only after months, if not years, of dedicating yourself to the discipline. It’s true that prolonged exposure to mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure and function of your brain, lead to rewards like better sleep and diminished anxiety. But can just a few sessions yield any benefits? Again, yes: New research showed that brief mindfulness meditation practice — 25 minutes for just three consecutive days — alleviated participants’ stress perceptions to a difficult speech and math task.
Integrating physical activity regularly into your life has overwhelming advantages – nothing we haven’t heard before. But completing just one workout can do some amazing things, too. A single workout can bring blood to the brain to mitigate stress and improve concentration and release endorphins to improve mood. And we’re not talking about a full-day workout, either: just a few measly minutes of training at high intensity – that is, approaching your absolute max – produces molecular changes in muscles similar to those of several hours of running or biking. The exercise doesn’t even have to be all that vigorous: An analysis of ten existing studies in the UK reveals that five minutes of exercise in a park, working in a backyard garden, on a nature trail or other green space will benefit mental health.
- Be grateful.
Gratitude is regarded as an abstract concept, a non-tangible quality adopted by Zen masters or your irritatingly positive coworkers. However it’s a quality that if practiced by, say, keeping a gratitude journal, it can result in some real physical and mental health improvements. Keeping a journal like this helps with negligible practice, too. Researchers recently asked heart-failure patients to write down three things for which they were thankful most days of the week for eight weeks, while continuing to receive regular clinical care during that time. “We found that more gratitude in these patients was associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health,” said lead author Dr. Paul J. Mills in a press release.
- Protect your head.
The phenomenon holds water with unhealthy activities as well. There are plenty of dangerous ventures that over time produce negative effects, however just a sprinkle of exposure can be harmful – think nicotine or gambling. In the case of head injuries, there’s evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a potential cause of dementia by recurring blows to the head, in the brains of former soccer players from repeatedly heading the ball. Yet even a few headers can do damage: researchers have shown that active soccer players who frequently head the ball have brain abnormalities resembling those found in patients with concussions. The neural deterioration doesn’t wait until the players are out of the sport.
We tend to delay exercising, hydrating or meditating because we’re unwilling to invest the time; we assume we’ve got to go all in for large chunks of time before reaping even the smallest benefits. But this evidence suggests otherwise, that gentle introductions to these activities can produce real changes in the body and mind.
The next time you see a penny on the street, make time to bend down and pick it up.
Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP