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Secrets of slimming down

Why does weight loss take so long, and why are the last 10 pounds so tough to lose? What are some suggestions for exercising outside of the gym? Smart Fitness answers your queries.
Set realistic goals for weight loss, experts say, and then stay the course.
Set realistic goals for weight loss, experts say, and then stay the course.Getty Images file

Why does weight loss take so long, and why are the last 10 pounds so tough to lose? What are some suggestions for exercising outside of the gym? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have an exercise question? To e-mail us, . We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: When working out and eating right, how long should it take to lose weight?

A: How fast you lose weight largely depends on how much you're exercising and how much you're eating.

But losing lots of weight quickly on a crash diet isn't healthy or sustainable, notes Mary Ann Dobbins, an exercise physiologist at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C.

Instead, experts generally recommend losing no more than one to two pounds a week.

To lose a pound of fat, you need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories. To lose one pound a week, you need to create an average 500-calorie deficit each day. And to lose two pounds, you need a 1,000-calorie deficit. Those deficits can be achieved through various combinations of diet and exercise. To create a 1,000-calorie deficit, for instance, you might aim to eat 500 fewer calories each day and burn 500 more through exercise.

Clearly, weight loss takes effort, time and commitment. "You gotta be ready," says Dobbins.

People are often motivated this time of the year because of their New Year's resolutions to get fit, but many will become discouraged after a couple of months because they aren't losing as much weight as they expected.

That's why it's important to set realistic goals in the first place, says Suzanne Farrell, a registered dietitian in Denver. For example, if you want to lose 10 percent of your body weight, it's reasonable to allow yourself six months — not just six weeks — to do so, she says.

Farrell recommends keeping a food diary so that you don't underestimate how much you're eating. The diary often serves as a "wake-up call," illustrating just how much more people are consuming than they thought, sometimes 1,000 calories more, she says.

Q: I am a 32-year-old woman who's trying to lose weight. I was exercising 60 minutes a day on my treadmill for four months, and now I am doing 90 minutes. My clothes fit a little better but I am still wearing the same ones and the scale has not moved. What am I doing wrong? What's the secret to weight loss?

A: Keep in mind that exercise is only part of the weight-loss equation. And it doesn't burn as many calories as you might think.

Dobbins says a 150-pound woman will burn 100 calories for every mile walked. So figure out how many calories you're burning with each exercise session and then take a close look at your diet and do the math.

Don't assume you can eat whatever you want just because you're exercising. We can consume calories much more quickly than we can burn them through exercise, and oftentimes they're hidden in coffee drinks, sodas and other places we don't think much about.

If you've been consuming more calories over the last few months, that could make up for the calories you're burning through exercise, causing your scales to remain stuck in the same spot. But you do say that your clothes are fitting better, which suggests progress. And now that you've exercising an additional half hour, you may see more results in the months ahead.

In the end, slow and steady wins the race. "It actually took some time to put the weight on," Dobbins says. "You just need to stick with it."

Q: I'm a regular exerciser but I can't seem to lose that last 10 pounds. My workout just isn't cutting it! I get on the treadmill for 20 minutes and then the elliptical trainer for 20 minutes, and then I do my leg lifts and sit-ups. Is there anything you can suggest to help me lose those last stubborn pounds?

A: There are a few things you should think about. For one, if your workout isn't cutting it, as you put it, maybe it's time to shake up your routine. You might have hit a fitness rut, in which you're not seeing the gains you'd like because your body isn't being challenged enough.

"Plateaus are very common throughout the weight-loss process," says Farrell. "People may need to vary their exercise program or diet."

Which brings us to a second point: Are you eating more than you should?

And thirdly, says Dobbins, do you really need to lose another 10 pounds? Many people think they need to lose weight to look like a runway model when actually they're already at a healthy weight, she says: "People have distorted ideas about what a healthy body looks like."

Q: Is running really the best exercise for weight loss?

A: Running can be an efficient way to help a person lose weight because it burns a high number of calories, minute for minute, compared to many other activities.

But if you hate running and don't do it, it's not the best exercise for you.

"The best exercise for weight loss is something that you enjoy doing and will keep up with," says Dobbins. "If you dread it, you're not going to do it."

Q: Money is tight, and I need to lose weight now. What can I do to lose weight fast while not being able to go to the gym?

A: First off, see the first question regarding the pitfalls of trying to lose weight fast.

As for ways to exercise without going to the gym, there are many: walking outside or at a mall, swimming, biking, working out to an exercise video in your living room, climbing stairs, playing basketball at the local courts, or dancing with friends. All of these are low-cost and readily available for many people.

So find a few activities you like and get moving. Good luck.

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.