By: Andrew Wolf, M.S. E.D.
I often have guests ask me, weight loss is more about diet than exercise, right? Successful weight loss almost always requires you to make adjustments in both your food intake and level of exercise. It's true, the diet part of the equation tends to move the scale faster in the beginning, but the positive effects of exercise are cumulative. In other words, the more efficient you become at working out, the bigger an impact exercise begins to have on your ability to lose weight. The problem is that many people jump on the exercise bandwagon, don't find the quick results they want, and then jump back off before they've built their aerobic capacity to the point where they would have begun seeing real improvement.
A lot of people see January as the ideal month to start or accelerate an exercise program, but while there's nothing wrong with New Year's resolutions per se, you don't want to go haywire and try to introduce too many changes at once. The bolder a move you try to make, the higher the chance that the pendulum will eventually swing in the other direction. Rather than attempting to morph from a couch potato to extreme athlete in one month—and risk ending back up on the couch—break your exercise goals into small pieces and achieve those pieces one at a time. Introduce one new behavior, like trying a new workout program, in January, even it that feels like an underwhelming change, and spend the month making it a habit. Then in February, introduce something else.
It takes about three weeks to begin seeing changes in your aerobic capacity or losses on the scale. People sometimes get frustrated because when their fitness levels are low, as they often are at the beginning of an exercise program, they can't work out very hard, which is a bummer because the amount of stimulus you can throw at yourself is less, and thus you don't necessarily see quick results. In the first month, you may feel like you're banging your head against a wall, and it may seem like exercise isn't that helpful for weight loss. But as you get fitter, you'll be able to work out harder, and you'll definitely see the results.
Another potential problem with a dramatic New Year's resolution is that you may be tempted to aim for an unrealistic goal weight. For a lot of people, their ideal weight is tied to a certain time in their lives—back when they were jocks in college or before they got married and had kids. A woman might look at a picture of herself standing on a beach in a bikini and think something like, I weighed 125 pounds then, and that's what I need to get back to. That is a fantasy weight. I consider basing your goal weight on the BMI (body mass index) formula nearly as problematic as nostalgia. BMI doesn't distinguish between a bicep and a love handle. A woman may have looked great at 125 when she was 20, but now, two decades and three kids later, she probably has more butt muscle, more thigh muscle. And if she were somehow able to get back to 125 she would have to lose a lot of that muscle to do it. She wouldn't look like that picture on the beach. She'd be gaunt and scary skinny.
Most of the people I test have a body-fat percentage between 28% and 42%, considerably higher than the recommended percentages of 20-28% for women and 13-18% for men. Thus, they do need to lose body fat but precisely how much is a figure that should be adjusted as they proceed along their weight-loss journey. The woman who weight 125 in her 20s may be fit, healthy, and comfortable at 140 in her 40s.