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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 weigh 165 and I have been on a regular routine now for the past week. I work out 4–5 times a week at the gym for about an hour and 45 minutes. I've lost inches but no weight. My calorie intake is about 1000 per day and I am burning at least 400–500 at the gym. I thought that I would have lost at least 2 lbs. already but nothing has happened. I can see a difference in my clothes and that my body is sculpting but I need to lose some weight. Please help.

(Article continued below.)

First off, congratulations on getting your weight loss program off to such a great start! You've lost both inches and fat your very first week. What? You say you haven't lost any weight? I didn't say you lost weight, I said you lost fat, which is even more important. Let me explain a few details about "weight loss" programs, and why you might want to ignore the numbers on your scale, at least for a while.

Although most people say they begin a fitness program to lose weight, what they really want to do is change their body composition by losing fat pounds and also replacing a percentage of those pounds with lean muscle. Body composition is your fat to lean mass ratio (lean mass includes muscle). Typically a woman's body fat ratio should be 22–25% and a man's should be around 15–18%. A personal trainer can figure out your body fat percentage for you. Ideally, the majority of pounds you lose should be fat pounds, with only a minimum of lean mass loss. You want to keep your muscle mass — in fact, you should want to add more. Muscle adds strength and is what gives you tone and definition. And muscle is denser than fat, so it takes up less space for its weight... which leads us to what you perceive as a problem, but really isn't.

In the short time you have been working out, you've lost fat mass but you have also gained the same weight in muscle mass. But because the muscle is denser than fat, you are getting smaller and your clothes are getting looser. This is a good trend. A pound of muscle can burn 25 times the amount of calories as a pound of fat, so the more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn, even when you aren't working out. If you keep exercising and sticking to a reasonable diet, you will continue to drop dress sizes, and the lost fat pounds will start to show up as smaller numbers on the scale. That said, there are a couple of things you should watch out for.

From the way you describe your current program, it sounds like you are eating too little and exercising too much. While your ambition is admirable, exercising 4–5 times a week for just an hour is better for you — an hour and 45 minutes can cause burnout, and it's a really tough schedule to keep up. Divide your time between cardio and weight training, and make sure it's all quality time. Do your cardio hard enough to put your heart rate in the fat burning zone or higher — most of machines at your gym probably have diagrams that list the proper heart rate according to your age range. As for the weight training, make sure you're using a heavy enough weight to challenge your muscle. By the time you do 10 or 12 reps of an exercise, you should feel like you can't complete another one with good form. If you feel like you can still easily keep going, then use a heavier weight. Many women have a bad habit of using weights that are too light and then not fatiguing the muscle. Doing this is a waste of time. Make sure those 30 minutes in the weight room count!

Now for your diet. One thousand calories is probably not enough for you. Most women should never go below 1,200 calories a day — that's just barely enough to keep your body going. As active as you are you should probably eat at least 1,400 calories (depending on your age — the older you get, the less calories you generally need. Conversely, younger women need more calories). Consuming too few calories will keep you from building any significant muscle mass. In fact your body, in an attempt to survive, will start to eat away at your already existing muscle mass. That's right — instead of burning fat, it'll burn the muscle instead and save the fat as emergency fuel. That's one of the reasons why a person's metabolism slows down during dieting — less muscle mass means less calories burned. Dieting involves balancing your activity and the amount of calories you consume - you do want a calorie deficit, but not so much that your body goes into starvation mode and your metabolism grinds to a halt. You may need a bit of trial and error to get it just right, and once you do you will have to adjust your diet as you go along and your body changes. But that whole issue is for another Q&A!

So don't worry — you've actually gotten off to an excellent start! Just let up on yourself a bit — make your exercise program and diet less extreme, and your results should continue to get even better.

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