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Slow and steady wins weight-loss race

New year brings focus on nutrition, fitness

By Jean Weinberg

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Experts say perseverance and hard work -- not quick fixes -- are key to losing and keeping off weight.
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Diet and Fitness
Bally Total Fitness Holding Corporation Incorporated

NEW YORK (CNN) -- For many who overindulged in December, January is time to take steps to shed extra pounds put on from cookies and cocktails galore.

Losing weight tops many people's list of new year resolutions -- a positive and "powerful thing," says Jon Harris, vice president of corporate development and communications for Bally Total Fitness.

"The resolutions are critical because it gives people a chance to have a new beginning," Harris says.

Americans were expected to spend more than $40 billion in 2004 on weight-control pills, gym memberships, diet plans and related foods, estimates Marketdata Enterprises, which studies the weight-loss industry. More people -- nearly a third of membership sales -- enroll in Bally fitness programs from January through March than in any other comparable three-month stretch, Harris says.

However, no matter how much money a person spends trying to lose weight, it's still a difficult task. Experts cite three keys to whittling down the waistline: nutrition, exercise and motivation.

The psychological element -- having the willpower to adhere to a plan -- could be most important of all. Whatever the scale reads or however lofty the ultimate goal, patience and perseverance are musts, Harris says.

"It's not about a magic pill," he says. "People need to take things slow and steady."

Smaller meals

In recent years, the Atkins diet -- stressing high-protein, low-carbohydrate foods -- dominated the health landscape. While that plan has fallen out of favor in some circles, debate continues to rage as people consider new fads, tempting quick fixes and less flashy solutions to control their weight.

Sydney Foster, a registered dietitian and private trainer at The Sports Club/LA on New York's Upper East Side, recommends switching to five or six mini-meals a day -- down from the regular two or three larger meals. Doing so, she says, bolsters metabolism and energy level.

Jessica Kuhn shrank from a size 16 to a 6 over the past year, using, an online diet and fitness site that says it has signed up 1.8-million members since 1997. The Pennsylvania native attributes much of her weight-loss success to splitting up her meals.

"Eating a lot of small frequent meals, you get to the point where you are hungry, but not starving," Kuhn says. "It's about feeding myself so that I have enough energy. I am never hungry, so I don't feel like I am dieting."

Understanding health basics -- and not trying to do too much, too fast -- can help people see through a new year's resolution. Little things such as trying new healthy foods or putting fruit and vegetables "front and center in the fridge" can make a difference over the long haul, says Leslie Fink, a nutritionist at

Often overlooked (and calorie-free), water can be integral to weight-loss efforts. Drinking adequate amounts can help with portion and calorie control.

"When you are dehydrated, your body mistakes thirst and hunger, which can make you think you are hungry when you're just thirsty," says Foster, who recommends drinking eight cups of water a day. "And when you're well hydrated, you'll have a better workout."

People also can eat many vegetables without taking in as many calories, Foster says, noting that one pat of butter and three heads of lettuce each have 100 calories.

Tracking calories -- and knowing how to eat more, for fewer calories -- can pay dividends, say experts.

"You get a lot more bang for your buck with the vegetables," she says.

Deliberate calculations

Embracing a healthier lifestyle works better than trying the newest extreme diet or other often temporary alternatives, says Liz Josefsberg, a weight-loss motivational expert at

"Having a clearly articulated goal and a plan of action is vital for dieting success," Fink says.

Within the larger plan, a person should set mini-goals -- such as running a 10-minute mile in two weeks or doing 20 push-ups by next month -- says Joe Dorr, a fitness instructor at the Sports Club/LA gym.

Foster recommends aiming to shed one to two pounds per week. Any more and there is the risk of losing muscle as well as fat, she says.

"The one thing you have to do is cut out calories," Foster says. "It can be either cutting back food or doing more exercise."

Calorie calculations depend on a person's size. On average, Foster says she recommends consuming 1,800 calories per day, dividing those into servings of fruit, dairy, protein, fat, vegetables and starch while ensuring a steady, diverse supply of vitamins and nutrients.

Consulting experts and useful Web sites can simplify the daunting process of counting calories and, ultimately, losing weight.

"I had somebody there to help with nutrition, fitness, and also peer support," Kuhn says of her experience using the Web to help shed pounds. "The message boards helped me a lot. ... This is 24/7, and when you are signing on, you are anonymous. You don't have to be embarrassed."

Consistent, hard work

A fitness director calls running and walking "the most natural exercise there is."

The most important element of any exercise program is doing it -- at least three days a week, Dorr says.

"You'll feel the difference in a month, and you'll start to see a difference in two months," he says. "By seeing results, it inspires you to do more."

Nothing beats walking or running, "the most natural exercise there is," Dorr says. Strength and "cardio-circuit" training -- jumping from apparatus to apparatus, maintaining a steady heart rate throughout -- also can be part of the routine.

Variety may help keep exercise exciting, making it more likely a person will continue working out.

"You should try and change the routine almost every time you come in [to the gym]," Dorr says. "You can use stairs, the treadmill, jump rope, anything that elevates your heart rate."

People getting back on track after the holidays often get "too overzealous, and they want to push themselves," Dorr says. That approach frequently leads to burnout, and a quick return to their old routine.

"Instead of jumping into it so gung-ho, ease into it," Dorr says. "Staying consistent is the key. If it's not working, it's your fault."

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