Nancy R. Cohen  /  Getty Images file
Exercise won't burn enough calories to make up for overeating. To lose weight, take a close look at calories in versus calories out.
By MSNBC contributor
updated 1/11/2005 8:12:01 PM ET 2005-01-12T01:12:01

How much exercise do you need to do to lose weight? And what are some safety tips for working out in the cold? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have a fitness question? To send an e-mail, click here . We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q:Hello and happy new year! I'm a 33-year-old woman who's trying to lose weight before summer, but I'm off to a rocky start. Over the last couple months, I've been jogging on the treadmill for half an hour three times a week plus lifting weights two days each week. Much to my frustration, though, my weight hasn't budged. What am I doing wrong?

A: First off, congratulations on sticking with your exercise plan for two full months so far — especially during the busy holiday season. Fitness experts say that if you can get through the first few months, you're more likely to make exercise a regular part of your life. And that can certainly help you to lose weight and keep it off.

It's easy to understand why you're frustrated though: you're working hard but not seeing the results you'd like. However, that doesn't mean your efforts aren't paying off. By engaging in regular aerobic exercise, you improve your overall health, and by strength-training, you build muscle, strength and tone.

But why aren't you losing weight? You may be exercising too little, eating too much or both. Weight loss comes down to calories in versus calories out, explains Cathy Nonas, a registered dietitian in New York City and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

To lose a pound of fat, you need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories. You can do this with diet and exercise, but it takes time — and work.

Let's assume for a moment that your diet hasn't changed over the last two months. A 150-pound woman will burn around 250 calories while jogging for 30 minutes and 107 calories while weight-training for the same amount of time. So depending on what you weigh, your exercise regimen may burn roughly 1,070 calories a week. At that rate, you'd need to exercise nearly a month to burn off a pound of fat.

You've been exercising for two months, so the maximum weight loss you might expect is a little more than two pounds — not enough to dramatically change the scales. And of course, this amount of weight loss would only occur if you didn't increase your food intake over the holidays, something that's pretty difficult to do. (Strength-training could cause the scales to tip a bit higher because of added muscle, but it's unlikely you've gained much muscle in just two months. Experts say that even with intense efforts, women may only gain upwards of two to three pounds of muscle, assuming they aren't taking steroids.)

So don't be too hard on yourself up because you haven't dropped a dress size yet. Stick with your exercise plan, and consider increasing the duration or intensity of your activity when you're ready.

Keep in mind that studies show that people who are most successful at weight loss get 60 minutes of moderate physical activity daily, an amount recommended by the Institute of Medicine, an independent research group that advises the government. A panel of experts who formulated recommendations for the revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, due out this month, also endorsed 60 minutes a day for many people trying to lose weight and as much as 90 minutes for those hoping to maintain weight loss.

That's a good deal of activity and it's only part of the weight-loss equation. You also need to take a careful look at your diet. You simply cannot eat whatever you want and expect to lose weight just because you exercise. Scarf down a half cup of Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby ice cream, for example, and you'll have to clock significant time at the gym to work off the 330 calories. Clearly, you can consume a lot more calories per minute than you can burn.

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So exercise can help you lose weight, but attention to diet is critical, emphasizes Nonas. "It's easier to reduce calorie consumption and see the scale move," she says.

Of course, giving up calories isn't something Americans have an easy time with, which is why it's important for a weight-loss plan to include exercise, says Darlene Sedlock, an associate professor of exercise physiology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Americans tend to want the quick-fix, with overnight results. That's why so many people who start off the new year with a resolution to lose weight give up within a few months. But weight loss can come gradually, Sedlock says. "You have to practice some patience."

What are some ways to stay safe when running outdoors in the winter — in Minnesota, for example. How cold is too cold?

A: Of course icy patches can lead to falls and injuries, but the biggest hazard of cold-weather workouts is losing too much body heat, causing hypothermia, notes the American Council on Exercise (ACE) in San Diego.

To protect yourself, keep as much of your skin covered as possible, including your hands and ears, and if it's really cold, wear a ski mask to protect your face and warm up the air you breathe.

Dress in layers for best protection, with your first layer being made of a polypropylene blend that will wick moisture away from your skin. Absorbent cotton clothing will hold moisture against your skin, and wet skin loses heat rapidly. A second thermal layer such as a fleece pullover can help keep you warm, as will a Windbreaker as your outer layer.

The real danger zone is when the wind chill factor is minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit or below, according to ACE. At that point, take a turn on the treadmill instead.

Smart Fitness appears the second Tuesday of each month.

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