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CRUNCH TIME

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Couch potatoes routinely peel themselves off the recliner this time of year and set out to deflate spare tires, tighten jellied thighs and tone flabby arms.

Yes, spring has sprung another round of exercise programs.

With summer around the corner, swimsuit anxiety has taken hold. So we run, pedal, climb, pump, push and pull--all in a frenzy to negate the unflattering effect a sedentary lifestyle has had on our bodies.

Rule of thumb: If you can pinch several inches of yourself, it’s time to grab a gym membership.

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But taking that first step on the road to physical fitness can be fraught with indecision. What exercise is best for me? How many times a week should I work out, and for how long? What kind of foods should I eat?

Thankfully, there are people who specialize in this sort of thing. While experts don’t see eye to eye on every method, they are in agreement on a few basic concepts:

* Start slowly in any exercise program.

* Eat a healthy diet.

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* Be patient.

Those looking for a quick fix, either through a fad diet or an overly aggressive training regime, will ultimately be disappointed, said Greg Isaacs, corporate fitness director at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank.

“Don’t look for fitness in a pill or a potion or a powder,” Isaacs said. “The bottom line is less is more. Take a step back. You don’t have to put all this crazy stuff in your body. Calm down, go back to the basics.

“It’s not an all-or-everything situation . . . You don’t have to spend three hours in the gym every day.”

In his new book, “The Ultimate Lean Routine,” Isaacs maps out a 12-week plan that he claims, if followed correctly, will result in up to a 30% loss in body fat, up to a 50% increase in aerobic fitness, up to a 40% increase in strength, and improved muscle tone and energy.

Isaacs, 36, has shared his principles of training and self-motivation with many professional athletes and celebrities. He is training Kurt Russell in preparation for the actor’s next feature film.

As a personal trainer to the stars, Isaacs is much in demand these days. But the South African native still finds time to work with studio employees at the Warner Bros. gym and set up programs for others who seek his advice.

Marylynne Moore, an executive secretary at Warner Bros., began working with Isaacs early in 1996 and credits his program for her losing 38 pounds and adopting a “new way of living.”

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However, near the end of last year Moore, 29, suffered a cracked pelvis in a self-defense class, causing her to stop working out for four months until recently resuming a scaled-down routine. Although Moore didn’t gain weight, the inactivity caused her to lose muscle tone and aerobic fitness. With Isaacs’ help, the Toluca Lake resident is determined to regain both.

“I’m coming back for the first time, so it’s like new again,” Moore said. “But I have a foundation. I’m more confident. I know how to succeed.”

While not engaging in anything too demanding, Moore said she works out five days a week in the Warner Bros. gym and keeps active on the weekends by either jogging or walking near her home. Her gym workouts include riding a stationary bicycle or walking on a treadmill, and participating in two 45-minute body sculpting classes a week.

Fitness authority Philip Stanforth, a leading researcher at the University of Texas, says a good exercise program should incorporate aerobic training--running, cycling, swimming, stair-climbing--and some type of weight training.

The best exercise?

“I always say it’s whatever you’ll do,” Stanforth said. “The benefits [of aerobic exercise] are all similar. The best exercise is what you’re going to do and enjoy, and what you’re going to continue to do.”

Stanforth and Isaacs both said self assessment is critical before starting an exercise program.

“Trying to figure out where you’re at--your age, your general health, what kind of exercise you’ve done before, how long it’s been since you last exercised,” Stanforth said. “All those things could potentially affect how you get started.

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“Obviously somebody older or somebody who has health problems really should consult with somebody before they get started. Those people will want to start out more gently than somebody else.”

Stanforth said walking for 30 minutes is an ideal exercise for beginners. If you’re reasonably fit, try walking and jogging. Build up slowly, setting a goal of jogging non-stop for 30 minutes.

“Initially I wouldn’t worry about speed,” said Stanforth, who competed in track and cross-country in college. “It’s more important to get the distance in. To get cardiovascular benefits, going longer and slower is more beneficial than going shorter and harder.”

Stanforth said the same basic principles--don’t overdo it--apply to weight training. Before joining a gym, he advised making sure that the facility provides weight-training instructors. Alternating days of aerobic and weight training, Stanforth said, “is a pretty efficient way to get in shape.”

Nutrition also plays a key role. Gailya Silhan, 41, of Glendale has worked the last eight years as an aerobic instructor, yet she recently sought Isaacs’ advice because she felt she was carrying too much fat.

In just two weeks on Isaacs’ prescribed diet, Silhan said she dropped a dress size and noticed a dramatic improvement in her body.

“I’d say diet is about 75% of what’s going on, because I’ve been working out for years,” Silhan said. “I wasn’t eating enough protein [before] and I was hungry more often. Protein can stave off cravings for sweets, which were my downfall.”

Issacs’ nutritional guide calls for eating “real” rather than processed foods, limiting portions and eating frequently. Contrary to the popular Zone Diet, Isaacs considers a 30% daily fat intake too high and he encourages active people to eat complex carbohydrates.

Isaacs also prescribes working out as intensely as possible and limiting workouts to an hour. According to Isaacs, 90% of all training gains can be achieved in the first 45 minutes of any workout if done correctly.

Isaacs suggests trying to carry on a normal conversation during aerobic exercise. If you can, you’re probably not working out at your optimum level.


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