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Keep your fitness plan cruising by prioritizing it, making it realistic and never forgetting the fun factor.
By MSNBC contributor
updated 1/9/2007 1:14:55 PM ET 2007-01-09T18:14:55

If you recently vowed to shape up in '07, you've taken an important first step on the road to wellness. But unfortunately, every year many well-intentioned people fall off the fitness wagon long before their new gym memberships expire.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, more than half of people who begin exercising at the start of the new year hit the bench within three to six months.

The problem? They didn't take the right path to fitness and ran into numerous roadblocks along the way.

Here are eight of the most common mistakes people make, along with advice for foolproofing your fitness plan:

Expecting miracles
Americans have a fix-it-quick mentality that doesn't work when it comes to getting in shape and losing weight, says exercise physiologist Warren Franke, director of the Iowa State University's Exercise Clinic in Ames.

After all, we didn't get out of shape or overweight overnight, so it's unrealistic to think we can whip up a new bod in a hurry.

"Our bodies aren't machines and we can't 'fix' them readily," Franke says.

Many people embark on a fitness plan specifically to lose weight, only to be disappointed and throw in the towel when they don't see results in a month or two, he says. But weight loss takes time — usually several months or more to see significant change — and exercise alone probably isn't going to do it for you.

That's because to lose just a pound of fat a week, you need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories, or 500 a day. Unless you were exercising for extensive periods, most of that caloric deficit would need to come from cutting back on food intake. (Consider, for instance, that a 150-pound man burns about 100 calories for every mile walked, so he'd have to walk 4 miles to burn off a single super-sized muffin.)

In addition to aiding weight loss, regular exercise offers many other health benefits, including a stronger body and a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and other conditions. Research also shows that overweight exercisers are generally healthier than thin couch potatoes.

Franke says all that's important to keep in mind if you start feeling like your efforts are wasted because you're not losing dozens of pounds.

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Not setting smart goals
Instead of resolving to lose 30 pounds by June or increase your biceps 4 inches by April, it's better to focus on behavioral goals that are more realistic, says exercise physiologist Richard Cotton, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.

For instance, your goal might be: "I will exercise a minimum of three times a week in 2007." That way, you won't set yourself up for failure and disappointment if you don't achieve the longer-term goal of the physical effects you desire. You can still aim for that, but give yourself more leeway in terms of time.

Also keep in mind that some goals simply may be overreaching and unhealthy. "Someone who looks like Rosie O'Donnell is unlikely to ever look like Calista Flockhart," Cotton says.

"Eat right and exercise regularly and let your weight go where it may," he says. "A healthy dose of self-acceptance is really fabulous, too."

Coming out of the blocks too quickly
Motivation is important and if Jan. 1 was your kick in the pants to get moving, great! Just don't get too gung-ho.

Start off doing too much too fast and you'll pay for it in more ways than one. "You'll wake up and you can't move," says Rob Parr, a personal trainer in Los Angeles. "Who wants to go back?"

Ease into exercise, starting gradually and doing a little more each week. Slow (at least initially) and steady wins this race.

Awaiting a love affair with fitness
Yes, some people are fitness fanatics who can't get enough. Most of us aren't. And just because you don't grow to love sweating doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Think of it as a valuable investment in your health.

That said, it greatly helps in the motivation department if you find activities that you get some enjoyment out of, even if you don't love them all the time.

Exercise that feels like torture in the beginning will get easier as you get into better shape. And as your body starts looking and feeling better and exertion becomes more tolerable, your attitude about physical activity likely will improve, according to Parr.

"When you start seeing changes, you're more motivated to go to the next level," he says.

Not prioritizing exercise
Fitness should be at least as important as doing the laundry, buying corn flakes or watching TV. You have set times for those activities, so why not schedule exercise?

Put it on the calendar along with work and various other appointments and errands. "Give yourself the same priority," says Cotton.

Failing to think outside the box
In the past, we were conditioned — by fitness experts — to think that exercise had to be an intense, heart-pounding, exhausting experience for it to count. That no-pain-no-gain thinking has changed.

Experts now know that half an hour of moderate physical activity (any type of movement, not just what we typically think of as "exercise") on most days of the week is enough to stay healthy (though if you want to lose a lot of weight and really shape up for swimsuit season, you'll need to work harder). In addition, the activity can be broken up into shorter periods.

"Physical activity doesn't have to be continuous exercise," says Franke. "It could just be what I call snippets of activity. A snippet here, a snippet there does add up."

A 5-minute walk counts. Three minutes of climbing the stairs at work counts. Push-ups and sit-ups in front of the TV count.

"Just do something," says Franke. "Get out of the chair."

Forgetting that variety is the spice of life
Do the same exercise over and over and you're bound to get bored and lose interest in fitness altogether, says Parr.

To keep things interesting, he recommends incorporating a few different types of aerobic activity into your regimen, such as step class, spinning and swimming. And when it comes to strength training, consider rotating resistance bands, free weights and machines.

"Try to break it up," Parr says. "Most new people who start a program do the same eight to 10 exercises that they're given [by a trainer or fitness instructor] over and over. It's like a mouse on a wheel."

Mistaking a trip-up for a full wipe-out
Expect that there will be times when you get your fitness routine off track. Maybe it's a busy period at work or you get sick or you have a full plate of family obligations. It happens. But it doesn't have to completely derail your exercise program.

Most exercisers fall off the wagon from time to time, says Cotton.

"And if you fall off," he says, "just get back on."

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.

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