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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 am 24 and only exercise a few days a week. I started out at 157 pounds, and my goal weight is 130 (I'm 5'6"). My calculations say I need to consume around 1,500 calories a day to achieve my goal. At first, I dropped a few pounds a week. I'm now at 149 pounds and but the scale hasn't budged for the past month. Are my calculations wrong, or, is it just going to be so slow from now on? How long will it take to get to my goal weight from diet alone?

(Article continued below.)

Your situation happens to almost everybody who is on a weight loss program — you've hit a plateau. Plateaus are proof of how adaptable the human body is. It gets used to a certain calorie intake and activity level and its metabolism adjusts to match it. That's why you've reached a pause in your path to your goal weight.

To kick your program back into gear, you need to change something — either your diet, your activity level, or both. Let's tackle each area separately:

Activity: You say you "only exercise a few days a week." Actually, that's already more than most people, so this is great to hear. The bad news is that the best, and easiest way to get your metabolism pumping again is by increasing your activity level. The good news is that this doesn't necessarily mean you have to spend more time exercising (although that is an option). You can spend exactly the same amount of time exercising as long as you increase the intensity of your workout. Are you walking? Then alternate a couple minutes of brisk walking with 30 seconds of all-out running, then recover for a couple of minutes and repeat the process until your time's up. Are you running? Spend some time running up hills. Any form of interval training — alternating a couple of minutes of an easier level with short bursts of very intense activity — will help increase your calorie burn along with your cardio health. This is a very common way for people to intensify their exercise routine, and it's extremely effective. Are you strength training? That's another way to increase calorie burn. Exercising with weights, or building strength through body weight exercises such as push-ups, squats, triceps dips and the like will build muscle, and muscle burns far more calories than the equivalent amount of fat mass. In addition, strength training will make you leaner — even if it is one of those weeks where you haven't lost a pound, you may discover that your clothes fit better than before. That's because muscle also takes up less room than fat. Another thing you might consider is changing the type of activity you're doing. If your activity of choice is aerobic dance, try kickboxing or spinning instead. If you've been using the treadmill exclusively, give the Stairmaster or the elliptical a spin. The whole point is to keep your body in a constant state of surprise by adding variety. If it never knows what you're going to do next, it can't settle in to a routine and that will help you avoid plateaus. Lastly, you can increase the amount of time you exercise to increase the number of calories you burn daily, but that's not as daunting a task as it may appear. Adding a one-mile walk during lunch or after dinner (which should take no more than 15 minutes) will burn an extra hundred calories. Do that every day and it begins to add up.

Diet: Your body has decided that 1,500 calories will do for your current weight. It has also adjusted to whatever type of diet you are currently eating. If you are eating a lot of the same things every day and keeping that 1,500 calories per day pretty consistent, the best thing you can do is change up your routine. One thing you want to avoid is eating significantly less, since your body will just readjust to the new calorie count, causing you to plateau once again. If you want to cut out another hundred calories, only do so on days that you are not working out (when you are exercising your body needs more calories). If you are eating three meals a day, try dividing those 1,500 calories into 6 small meals instead. How much sugar and starch are you eating? Try replacing some of that with more vegetables or protein. (While a low-carb diet isn't necessary for weight loss — especially long-term weight loss — eating less of the refined starchy or sugary stuff is generally a good idea). Are you relying on low-calorie frozen meals for your sustenance? Whip up some quick, fresh salads or smoothies with fruit and protein powder instead. The quality of what you eat is as important as how much you eat. Whenever you can, opt for something fresh instead of a meal-in-a-box. What time are you eating your main meals? If it is later in the day, try changing it to early to mid-day, and eat lighter in the evening, when you are probably less active. And don't eat the same thing every day — experiment with different vegetables and different recipes. Have a breakfast burrito with egg whites and beans one day, a high fiber cereal with skim or low fat soymilk the next. Have chicken and spinach for dinner one night, fish and broccoli the next. Your body gets bored with the same food everyday, and so do you, so always be willing to try something new. Also allow yourself one treat day, where you can eat something that's not normally on your diet. That doesn't mean to go crazy — inhaling a 1,000-plus-calorie feast can undo a week's worth of work — but do have a small treat, maybe a couple hundred calories' worth. Have a burger for dinner instead of your usual skinny fare, or a small slice of cake or some ice cream for dessert. As a result you — and your body — won't feel as deprived. People have reported that their metabolism has kicked back up after a treat day, which only proves that when it comes to calories and weight loss, numbers are not absolute.

As you can see, reaching your goal weight really takes a combination of activity and diet. In fact, attempting to lose weight through just diet alone is not all that desirable — it will be harder to lose those pounds, and if you do lose them, you still won't have any muscle tone. (Yes, you can be thin and flabby.) How long it takes you to reach your goal weight depends on you and your own particular body. It's partly genetics — some people just naturally lose weight more easily than others and men almost always lose weight faster than women (life's not fair!). But if you watch what you eat and choose variety in both your diet and your exercise, you will get there. Your goal of 130 pounds for your height is a perfectly realistic one, and you have already made progress. Keep up the good work!

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