Think of yourself as an athlete-in-training.
It's an important concept if you're about to make another set of New Year's resolutions about eating right, getting fit or losing weight.
After all, you were born into an animal body, designed to climb trees, run across plains and swim rivers to get food. Bodies work best when we use them.
In America, however, our idea of "the good life" is to put our feet up, do nothing, take the easy way out. This is counterproductive.
Twenty-five years ago, a secretary trading a manual typewriter for a new electric model could actually gain five pounds a year due to the decrease in physical activity!
Think what's happened since. We have electric pencil sharpeners, electric staplers, elevators, escalators, electric-eye doors. Even remote controls for our TV sets.
Simultaneously, we are faced with the most abundant food supply in the history of the world, and an advertising industry committed to making us eat whether we are hungry or not.
We have, in effect, taken our glorious animal bodies, seat-belted them into chairs, and stuffed them full of food till we can hardly move. Then we wonder why we don't feel very good.
The only way to beat this system is to start thinking of ourselves as athletes-in-training, eager to regain our animal prowess.
Athletes improve by doing just a little bit more every day. You can dothat, too. It doesn't matter how old you are, how inactive you've been, or how poor your eating habits.
The most important thing is to recognize your own starting point, then make small but steady improvements on a regular basis.
If you're over 40, overweight, have a history of heart disease and/or smoke check with a physician before beginning an exercise program. Otherwise, evaluate your own physical ability -- and go from there. If you can walk for 15 minutes comfortably, go out and do that every other day for two weeks. Then walk for 20 minutes every other day for two weeks. Then 25, then 30.
Or try an exercise bike. If you're really out of shape, cycle for just two minutes at the lowest resistance every other day for two weeks. Then do three minutes every other day for two weeks. Then four, then five, then six. By this time next year, you'll be cycling for 30 minutes every other day, no pain, no strain.
Change your eating habits the same way. If you eat red meat every day, cut down to five days a week for two weeks, then four days a week for four weeks, then three days a week for a while, then to two days a week, which is a healthy practice.
Don't eat enough veggies? Try just one serving daily. After a while, go for two a day, then eventually three. Increase your fruits and whole grains the same way.
Bank on persistence and gradual increases. This time next year, you'll be an animal again!
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and director of Eating Together in Baltimore