Woman hiking
Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation

Every January for 15 years, I committed to a different weight loss scheme—from a cabbage soup diet to a carb-restriction plan, from fitness boot camp to a personal trainer. And sure, I could drop ten pounds at the start, but by February 7, my promise to begin each day with a healthy breakfast and a 60-minute workout was replaced by a hot new relationship with my snooze button.

My wake-up call came one year ago, courtesy of my doctor, who told me bluntly, "You will get diabetes." I had the family history, the extra weight around my waist, the high blood pressure, the high cholesterol. Plus, I'm African-American (we're diabetes magnets). That evening I had a sudden realization: If I wanted my changes to last, they had to be doable, not daunting. So I sketched out a strategy for taking back my health. I call it the If-I-do-just-two-things-this-year list, and it includes only itty-bitty baby steps toward wellness. Last year, step one was completing five jumping jacks every day. Not only do jumping jacks feel more like play than exercise, but doing a set immediately revs my energy and lifts my mood. Step two: one tablespoon of ground flaxseed every 24 hours. No matter how I take it—hidden in my breakfast cereal or mixed with the mustard on my sandwich—it makes me feel full (it's loaded with fiber), plus it may lower my cholesterol and ward off heart disease and, bingo, diabetes.

By last June, six months of sticking to my two-step program had given me the confidence to take a bigger leap: speed walking. Instead of—yawn—committing hours to a treadmill, I began power-striding my way through Manhattan. I walk to the dry cleaner (around the corner), my favorite tea shop (one mile), Saturday brunch with friends (three miles). I've not only cut my transportation costs in half; I've lost 40 pounds and five inches from my midsection, and my blood pressure and cholesterol numbers are now normal. Yes, there are days when I veer off-track and swap a stroll for a hot fudge sundae. And that's when I cling to the Japanese proverb taped to my mirror: "Fall down seven times—get up eight."

This story is part of O's Live Your Best Year Toolkit

Next: How Kelly Corrigan finally came to terms with her mother

Michelle Burford is an O contributing editor