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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 trying to lose ten pounds but the scale won't budge. I only eat 1,000 calories a day, plus I exercise for at least an hour four times a week. What am I doing wrong?

The problem is obvious: you are starving yourself and your body is rebelling by slowing its metabolism down to a crawl. An average-sized, moderately active woman in her 30s - say 5'4" and 130 pounds - needs perhaps 2,000 calories a day to maintain her weight. If she exercises intensely on a regular basis, she may need even more calories. If she's a couch potato, she may need a bit less. Losing weight is purely a matter of math - you must burn more calories than you consume. So, you would figure that the less you ate, the faster you would lose weight, right? That logic actually only goes so far because your metabolism isn't static - it adjusts to your activity level, how much you eat, your percentage of muscle mass, the regulation of certain hormones, and other factors. Your body's goal is to maintain its current weight. When you start cutting down on what you eat, your metabolism adjusts by slowing down so you don't burn so many calories. That's why dieters often hit plateaus after losing steadily - their metabolisms have slowed down so that their bodies can maintain a steady weight.

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When you want to lose weight, you also need to consider your basal metabolic rate (BMR) - that's the amount of calories you burn by just existing, what you would require if you just laid in bed all day. The basal metabolic rate for the above mentioned 130 pound woman is probably somewhere between 1200 to 1300 calories. If she wanted to lose weight (although, frankly, at 130 pounds, she shouldn't be considering it), she should avoid going below her BMR. That's what sends the body into starvation mode. When she's no longer consuming enough to even exist, her metabolism will conserve as much as possible in order for her body to survive. By eating 1,000 calories or less daily, she may lose some weight for a while but she won't be losing the type of weight she desires - she'll be losing muscle, not fat. Fat is stored energy, and that's what the body wants to cling to when it's in starvation mode. Burning the storage - fat - is a last resort. Losing muscle mass slows down your metabolism even more. It's a vicious circle - and your body isn't getting anywhere near the nutrients it needs to be healthy. Exercising an hour a day with such a low calorie intake isn't a good thing, either - you aren't eating enough to build or even maintain muscle; instead you're putting a lot of stress on your body.

When you want to lose fat (which is actually what everyone means when they say they want to lose weight - certainly, no one wants to lose muscle, bone or organs!), moderation is the key. Figure out how much you are eating every day and cut the amount down by around 200-300 calories. Instead of a couple of large meals, eat small meals throughout the day, maybe three, no more than four hours apart - this keeps your body from thinking it's starving. Make sure that the food you do eat is nutritious - include lots of lean protein, vegetables and fruit and cut way down on refined sugar and refined starches. A moderate amount of fat - up to 30% of your daily calories - is okay, as long as only a third of that is saturated fat. At the same time, increase the amount of calories you're burning by 200-300 per day - do a half-hour to an hour of moderate exercise - brisk walking or jogging, dancing, swimming (the more intense the activity, the less time you need to spend at it). Even better, make sure you are doing some resistance training - that way you are keeping up your muscle mass (and your metabolism). You should try to lose no more than a couple pounds a week - remember, in weight loss, slow and steady wins the race. Your metabolism won't slow down as quickly, and you're more likely to keep off the weight once you've lost it. Best of all, make the changes in your diet and lifestyle permanent ones - stay active and continue to eat foods that are higher in nutritional value. You'll be healthy and stay slim. And remember, if you have more than a few pounds to lose, or if you have any health problems, see your primary care provider before embarking on a new diet or exercise program.

What if you've already messed up, and you're on that 1,000-calorie diet? Don't worry, you can fix it - remember, metabolism isn't static. It can fluctuate in either direction. Gradually start adding more calories to your diet, a couple hundred at a time. Since your metabolism has slowed, if you immediately went back to a 2,000-calorie diet, chances are your starving body would cling to every calorie and you would put on weight. So slowly add the calories back. Stay lightly to moderately active - when you have a low calorie intake, you should not be exercising intensely. Interestingly, people sometimes find they start losing again when they begin adding calories back - their bodies are no longer in starvation mode. When you are eating a reasonable amount of calories again - 1,500 to 1,600 is reasonable for most women who want to lose weight - you can start making adjustments in your activity level and caloric intake. As a rule of thumb, women in their 20s and 30s shouldn't go below 1,500 calories per day for weight loss, and older women should eat no less than 1,400. For the average man, 1,900 - 2,000 calories is appropriate. These numbers will, of course, change according to your height and activity level - consider them minimums.

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