Forget crash diets and ambitious gym regimes – making a few small changes can make a really big difference to your health in 2011. Kate Hilpern reports

A new year means a new start and for many of us that means resolving to live better and be healthier, fitter and slimmer. But by February, these resolutions have often turned to dust.

The problem may be that we're asking too much of ourselves. "In the new year, people tend to introduce enormous changes to their lifestyles in an attempt to shift some extra pounds or get fit," says GP Dr Rob Hicks. "But it's the small changes that make the biggest difference – it means they are more likely to become habit. Basic measures like leaving bowls of fruit in strategic places – near the remote control, by the bed and so on – can actually do more than any diet."

Cutting out sugary drinks is another example. Alcoholic drinks also contribute lots of calories to our diet, without us eating less to compensate. Buying a smaller wine glass can cut significant numbers of calories from our diets without us even noticing.

Turn housework into a workout

"Forget the gym. Housework is a great way to burn calories," says Juliette Kellow, dietician and adviser to the online weight management programme Weight Loss Resources. "Polishing, dusting, mopping and sweeping are great for keeping arms shapely. Meanwhile, bending and stretching when you make the bed, wash windows or do the laundry are good for toning thighs and flexibility. And constantly running up and down the stairs as you tidy is a good aerobic workout."

In an hour, you can burn 193.7 calories vacuuming, 173.6 by dusting, 193.7 mopping the floor, 113.1 ironing and 180.3 cleaning windows, she says.

More energetic household chores such as decorating and spring cleaning are even better. "Don't forget the garden, either – weeding, digging, mowing the lawn, trimming hedges or bushes and sweeping up are all great muscle toners and calorie burners." One hour of gardening can burn a mammoth 287.8 calories, she reports.

Among Kellow's tips are to use a wax polish in a tin rather than a spray as you'll need to rub it much harder to get a shine. "Plan your housework so you have to run up and down the stairs," she adds. "Empty the dishwasher, then make the bed, vacuum the living room, then clean the bathroom."

Start having saunas

A daily 15-minute sauna could be the equivalent of taking regular exercise and save you from heart disease, Japanese scientists have found. Researchers at Kagoshima University discovered that two weeks after taking a sauna every day, a group of men at risk from heart disease had significantly wider arteries and increased blood flow. Daily saunas may even reverse the damage to blood vessels caused by high cholesterol levels, according to the researchers.

By raising your body temperature and making you sweat, saunas can also boost your lymphatic system. Your lymphatic system is responsible for ridding your body of all its toxins and if it fails to work properly, you can become more prone to headaches, poor digestion and mild infections such as colds.

Saunas are good for blood circulation, too, warming your hands and feet, as well as directing fresh blood to your internal organs, which helps them function more effectively.

Ignore claims that saunas burn calories, however. Although weight can be lost quite rapidly, it's due to a loss of fluid, not fat, which will quickly be regained when you drink.

Become a couch athlete

Staring at a screen might not sound the ideal recipe for getting fit and healthy. Gamers are better known for being couch potatoes who only go outside to buy more fizzy drinks and crisps. But despite their bad press, research increasingly shows that fitness video games can be as effective as running, aerobics classes and cycle rides.

"If you feel you are lacking in self-discipline and need a bit of help, exer-games may come into their own," says Shona Wilkinson, nutritional therapist at The Nutri Centre. "They are designed to make exercise fun and accessible. Most games offer a choice of yoga- type exercises, strength training and aerobic exercises. You can even go for a run through the countryside while remaining in your front room." "It's not any better than conventional aerobic exercise, but it's as effective," confirms Alasdair Thin, lecturer in human physiology at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, who has studied their effect.

If you were given money this Christmas, consider the Kinect for Xbox 360 (£249.99, The camera uses a depth sensor and RGB camera to track your full body in 3D, allowing you to control and interact with the fitness games without a controller or remote. It also means Kinect can monitor your body during exercise and tell you how well you're doing. Fitness titles worth considering include Your Shape, Zumba Fitness and Dance Central. For those with a Nintendo Wii console, Get Fit with Mel B is an impressively energetic workout programme and if you have a PlayStation 3, consider The Fight and SingStar Dance.

No console? There's a huge amount of home-fitness equipment on the market, including the Leg Master, Thigh Glider, Powerball and Shake Weight.

Start walking

Just one brisk half-hour walk a day aids weight control and cuts the risk of 24 illnesses, from cancer and heart disease to dementia. Researchers at the University of East Anglia discovered that adults up to 65 can improve their chances of staying disease-free by doing 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week, including 30 minutes of brisk walking five days.

Begin with short walks for 10 to 20 minutes two to three times a week. You could even combine your walking with a shopping trip. Strolling around a shopping centre for an hour can burn 200 calories. Jenny Pacey, the fitness adviser to Ultimate Sports Nutrition, suggests other tricks to integrate walking into your routine without really noticing. "Walk up escalators and get into the habit of parking as far away as you can from the supermarket door – the added weight of shopping bags on your way back to your car will burn even more calories. Also, if I really fancy a glass of wine or a treat in the evening, I make an extra effort to walk to the shop to offset the extra energy intake."

Other benefits of walking include an improvement to cardiovascular health and muscle strength, as well as toning the legs and buttocks and strengthening the bones.

Make five small changes to your eating habits

Diets fail because they ask too much, according to researchers from the University of Liverpool. Instead, pick five small, achievable changes such as switching to skimmed milk, choosing leaner cuts of red meat and poultry, eating only half your pudding (save the rest for tomorrow night), eating an extra vegetable portion a day and eating from a smaller plate to help control portion size. "Cutting out the equivalent of just one biscuit each day can help you lose up to a stone in a year," says Jenny Allan, nutritionist for Slimming World. "However, banning all your favourite treats will lead to cravings that can be impossible to resist in the long term."

At least one of your five changes should be a food swap, she says – changing cooking oil for light cooking sprays, for example, or calorie-laden salad dressings for fat-free vinaigrettes, both of which will reduce your fat intake without compromising on taste or adding preparation time.

Your changes should not involve skipping meals. Studies show that people who try to lose weight tend to be more successful if they regularly eat a decent-sized breakfast. "Research also shows that when people add a low-energy density starter, such as soup or salad, before their meal, they actually eat less at the whole meal," says Bridget Benelam, spokes- person for the Nutrition Society.

Cook from scratch

Home cooking is easier and quicker than you think and one of the best ways to reach a healthy weight, says Sian Porter, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. "If you cook, you are in control of what you are eating, from the ingredients to the cooking method. Today, with the internet, supermarket recipe cards and straightforward timed recipe books, it has never been easier. By the time you've heated up your ready meal in the oven you could have grilled a lean pork chop, boiled some potatoes, steamed some vegetables and made a tasty sauce for it."

If you can't cook or lack time, fear not – never have there been so many gadgets to help. Among the latest is the Tefal VitaCuisine Compact Steamer (£71.66,, which contains a "vitamin boost" button, resulting in 45 per cent more vitamin retention compared with traditional cooking methods. The Prostar Fish Steamer (£47.49, can steam a whole fish in 12 minutes, perfect for health-conscious people who don't have the time to prepare low-calorie meals. Meanwhile, the new Salter Nutri-Weigh Slim Electronic Scale calculates the nutritional value of 999 foods (£44.99,

"Try a new recipe once a week – choosing a variety of foods is the best way to ensure your body gets all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy, but it's very easy to get stuck in a rut eating the same few meals," says nutritionist Fiona Hunter.

Eat consciously

"Do you eat lunch at your desk or dinner in front of the television? Eating consciously not only adds to the enjoyment of food, but it helps you to eat slowly and to notice how much you're shovelling down," says dietician Azmina Govindji.

Write down what you're eating, she suggests. "It may sound strange, but there is research to show that if you simply make a note of what you're eating, you will become more conscious of it and that in itself will help you to cut down."

We make hundreds of decisions a day about food, according Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating. At breakfast, for example, we think, should I stop pouring the milk into my cereal now? Do I put sugar or banana on top? Do I want toast or a muffin? Each of these food choices, he says, is affected by a slew of pushy but subtle influences – a food's container, for instance, influences how much seems "OK" to eat. Indeed, his most famous study found that people at the movies ate 53 per cent more popcorn if it was served in bigger buckets. By thinking about our food decisions and the things that influence it, we could shave enough calories off our diets to make a difference.

Even thinking about food could help you lose weight, according to a new study, which found that people who had imagined they were eating chocolate wanted it less than those who had not been thinking of it. The co-author of the study, Dr Joachim Vosgerau said that "the difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed".