So here we are, just a few days into the new year, and if you're like many people who've vowed to "shape up," your resolve is starting to crumble. The sad fact is that despite the best intentions, half of all adults who begin a new exercise program quit within six months.

While these fitness dropouts tend to see themselves as exercise failures, the real problem is often the classic mistake of doing too much too soon. Fitness experts call it "the January 1st" approach: After the six-week holiday "eating season," people who've been inactive for years lace up their sneakers and work out with a vengeance. Typically these over-zealous exercisers get injured or frustrated and stop exercising. Many never start again.

This all-too-familiar "failed fitness" scenario relies on the common misconception that exercise is an "either-or" phenomenon: You either go to the gym for an hour or do nothing. But new research demonstrates that exercise isn't an all or nothing proposition and that activity need not be lengthy--or even sweaty--to have significant health benefits. In fact, it doesn't have to be "exercise" at all.

"Every step you take counts toward better health," says Andrea Dunn, director of Project Active at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. Her study, published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), concludes that accumulating small amounts of physical activity throughout your day can provide health benefits similar to those you'd get from a traditional gym workout.

This concept of making small lifestyle changes is increasingly being embraced by health professionals seeking to counter America's epidemic of widening waistlines. A recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine cites the importance of preventing further weight gain in people who have added 10 pounds by directing physicians to advise such patients "to make small but permanent adjustments in physical activity and eating patterns."

Small changes are "eminently sensible," the editorial says, because they don't require huge chunks of time or effort but provide a realistic way for people to achieve significant health benefits. For example, deciding to walk to a colleague's office to deliver messages instead of sending an e-mail may not seem like much. But over time it could produce health benefits, reports Stanford University physiologist William L. Haskell.

"Consider the office worker . . . who exchanges just two minutes of slow walking around the office to deliver messages for two minutes of sitting at a computer sending e-mail each hour for eight hours per day, five days per week," Haskell wrote in JAMA in 1996. "Over the course of a year, the reduction in energy expenditure due this change would be equivalent to 1.1 pounds of fat. Over 10 years, a positive energy balance of this magnitude could increase a person's body weight by 11 pounds."

E-mail, of course, is just one of countless devices that have made our lives more sedentary, contributing to our epidemic of obesity-related ailments. Our ancestors had to chop wood and haul water to survive, and it's becoming increasingly clear that, in our push-button world, we must find ways to move if we want to be healthy, too.

The fitness challenge of the 21st century is the necessity of continually looking for ways to be physically active. So rather than resolving to do too much--and setting yourself up for failure--why not vow to make some small, healthy changes you can stick with? Think of it as the limbo approach--How low can you go? The important factor is that you commit to these changes and make them a permanent feature of your life.

Here's a list of small but significant steps to get you started. Pick a few, and add some of your own, to make a list of realistic fitness resolutions you can keep.

I resolve to:

* Park in the farthest space in every lot.

* Use the bathroom on another floor and take the stairs to get there.

* Make the active choice whenever I'm faced with the decision between moving and standing still. For example, if I come upon a stairway next to an escalator, I'll take the stairs.

* Avoid drive-throughs. At the bank, cleaners or restaurant, I'll park and walk in.

* Socialize actively. Instead of sitting and talking with friends and family, I'll walk and talk whenever possible.

* Use muscles, not machines. For example, I'll wash and wax my car by hand, use a rake instead of a leaf blower, get up and change the channel rather than using the remote control.

* Do five minutes of calisthenics every morning.

* Take my dog on a walk every day. (If you don't have one, walk your "inner dog".)

* Not let the sun go down without doing some physical activity that I enjoy (for example, shooting hoops, dancing, hitting golf balls, walking) for at least 10 minutes.

Once you decide on your "small change" resolutions, put them in writing. As the Chinese proverb states: "The palest ink is better than the best memory." Have a supportive friend sign as a witness. When you complete one month of sticking to your moving vows, reward your triumph with a healthy indulgence like a massage or fresh flowers.

Build on these small changes over time, with the goal of eventually accumulating 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. Just as nickels and dimes can accumulate over time to significant sums, small change in your daily activities can add up to important health benefits such as preventing weight gain and helping to regulate blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol.

And remember, the people most likely to meet their fitness goals start from the inside out: They don't make the changes for a spouse or for a doctor, but for themselves.

Resource

Get free expert answers to fitness questions on Saturday, January 15, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. through the fourth annual American Council on Exercise (ACE) "fitness on call" hot line event. More than 40 ACE-certified fitness professionals, plus sports medicine specialists and dietitians, will be fielding calls at 1-888-397-2473.