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Q & A

Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.

I'm almost 16. I weigh 134 pounds and I'm 5' 4-1/2". I want to lose 20 pounds. I run, jog, and do 5 pound weights, but none of this is making me lose weight. I eat healthy, but sometimes I don't. All I am asking is: what kinds of things should I do to lose 20 pounds?

(Article continued below.)

If you are serious about losing weight, you need to organize both your workouts and your eating habits. You say that sometimes you eat healthy and sometimes you don't, and although you don't say how often you do your cardio and weight training, I get the feeling that your workouts are probably as haphazard as what you eat. A successful weight loss program depends on consistency.

If you weigh 134, you should find out exactly what you are doing to be that weight — in other words, what your current eating and exercise habits are. So, for a week, write down everything you eat — each meal and snacks. You even need to count that handful of chips you grabbed while passing by the kitchen and those couple of fries that you took from your friend's lunch while you were chatting. Oh yes, and the milk you added to your oatmeal and the sugar and half-and-half you added to your coffee. Everything. Measure it, if you can, too — you may find that the portions you are eating are bigger than you realized (did you know that a serving of rice is just half a cup?). Meanwhile, keep a workout log — every time you run, jog or weight train, write it down: the length of time you exercised and the intensity. For the weight training, note the exercises you did, and the number of repetitions for each move.

Once you have all this information, take a look at it and start figuring out ways you can improve. Are there areas in which you can replace starchy carbs with vegetables? Can you snack on a piece of fruit instead of chips or a full-sugar soda? Can you cut down your portion sizes? And, most importantly, can you stick with these modifications over a period of weeks or months? Can you make your diet healthier in a way that you will continue indefinitely? That's really important — if you do lose weight and just return to your old way of eating, you'll only gain the weight back.

Now for the exercise. You'll probably want to do more of it. Ideally you should exercise at a moderate or higher intensity for 30 minutes a day, most days of the week. In other words, just take a day, never more than two, off from exercise. If you are willing to devote a whole hour to exercise, then you only have to do 3 or 4 sessions a week. If you're doing 30 minutes a day, alternate between cardio (jogging or running) and weight training days. If you are doing an hour, do it every other day and do 30 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of weight training. (You need a day between weight training sessions for your muscles to truly benefit from your work.) When you're doing cardio, make sure that the level of intensity is high enough to get your heart rate up — if you were to exercise with a friend, you should be able to chat, but with a little difficulty. When it comes to weight training, make sure that over the course of the week you hit all the muscle groups in your body, both upper and lower. You don't have to do them all in one session — you can do upper body one day, lower body another day. For variety you may want to check out some exercise DVDs — there are a lot of them that just require 5-pound weights and give you a good half-hour workout. If you notice that some exercises are too easy for you with the 5-pound weights, get some heavier dumbbells — 6, 7 or 8. Dumbbells are inexpensive and are a great investment when it comes to giving your body a toned, shapely look.

Will doing all this help you lose 20 pounds? That's up to you. Once you create a weight loss program, it is up to you to stick with it, and to modify the parts that don't work as you go along. Keep in mind that you should lose weight slowly — just one or two pounds a week at the most. To do that, you should eat around 250 calories less per day and burn 250 more calories per day with exercise. Trying to lose more than a couple of pounds a week is not healthy, and chances are you'll be losing more muscle mass than fat. You want to hang onto the muscle mass — it makes your body look good. Slow and steady weight loss, done wisely, results in more fat loss and better results overall.

All this said, however, the big question is should you lose 20 pounds? 114 pounds at your age and height would certainly be a very svelte weight, but you may find you don't need to lose that much to look good. Check yourself out in the mirror and get real — you may find you look just fine at 120 or 125. Your current weight isn't all that bad, either, and fine-tuning your eating and exercise will only improve it. One of the hardest things for young women your age is to accept their bodies. But if you can figure out how to feel okay with yourself, you'll have an edge over a lot of your peers. And you may be surprised that the weight comes off more easily too. It really does work that way.

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