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Resolve all you want, but fitness needs a real plan

Times Staff Writer

As the new year dawns, strange things will happen in homes across Southern California. Sweatpants and tennis shoes will suddenly materialize, long-forgotten gym membership cards will appear out of nowhere and cartons of eggnog will mysteriously disappear. With motivation so strong it could power a jet, thousands of people will embark on exercise regimens with the admirable intent of getting in shape and dropping some weight. According to a recent poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 39% of the population will make New Year’s resolutions this year, with many (17%) vowing to lose weight. That’s the good news.

Coping with change

The bad news is that the vast majority probably won’t keep these pledges past March. Success often remains elusive, experts say, because of a few key matters: a lack of planning, unrealistic goals and the simple fact that human beings aren’t keen on change.

“The idea of physical exercise is a change of habit, and it’s not welcomed,” says Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical psychologist with the anxiety disorders program at UCLA. “It requires effort which, in most cases, we are not too eager to apply. What makes it even more difficult is the investment of hard work.”

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But the hard work doesn’t have to involve a two-hour stint of no-pain-no-gain workouts every day for weeks. That’s a self-defeating strategy many people have until the demands of daily life -- family, travel, work -- derail them. Planning an exercise regimen can ensure greater long-term success.

“People spend an inordinate amount of time planning a trip or a wedding, but when it comes to getting in shape, people are unwilling to plan,” says Charles Stuart Platkin, author of “Breaking the Pattern: The 5 Principles You Need to Remodel Your Life” (Red Mill Press, 2001).

That resurrects old patterns and habits that didn’t work then and won’t work now: “If every year you join a gym but you hate going to the gym, then maybe you need to come up with something else that provides you with cardiovascular and strength training.”

Platkin, founder of the Nutricise weight-loss program, suggests rediscovering some long-forgotten but favorite sport, such as racquetball or swimming. If socializing is important, get a workout buddy (preferably one with equal zeal), join a team or make friends at the gym.

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If just the thought of setting up an exercise routine seems daunting, break it into manageable steps, says Jerald Jellison, a professor of psychology at UCLA. “If you’re going to join a gym, bring a checklist of things you want to know, such as the quality of the instructors, the kinds of classes they offer, and when they’re open.”

Man versus machine

Even fear of not knowing how to use a piece of equipment is enough to keep some out of a health club, says Bess Marcus, director of the Physical Activity Research Centers at Brown Medical School and the Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I. “A lot of YMCAs have classes on how to use the machines,” she says, “and that way you’re in the same boat with other people.”

Setting unachievable goals is one way to almost ensure dropping out of a fitness program. Expecting to run a marathon by spring or dropping 30 pounds in a month is unrealistic for most people. Instead, focus on training for a 5- or 10-kilometer run before tackling anything more. Also, replace amorphous objectives with specific ones. Says Maidenberg, “What is the goal and how will you know when you succeed?”

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He suggests tailoring the exercise to the purpose: “If you’re very overweight, then do a particular kind of exercise. Focus on what you want to do and why you want to do it.”

Sandy Shafer, a personal trainer with the Sports Club/LA, says he’s heard clients proclaim, “I’m going to work out for two months and get back to the way I was when I graduated high school.”

“Well, they’re 42 years old now and sit at a desk all day. Their whole lifestyle is different and it may not be realistic to lose two pounds in two weeks. It may take a month.”

Don’t expect quick results

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Often goals remain unattained because people focus only on their ultimate objective, which doesn’t come fast enough. Resolutions are broken during the critical first few weeks of a new exercise program, when the pounds haven’t come off, abs haven’t gone flat, and getting up early and schlepping to the gym is still an excruciating chore. Small victories are frequently ignored, but they shouldn’t be.

“Do you feel like you have more energy or can handle daily hassles better?” says Marcus, coauthor of “Motivating People to Be Physically Active” (Human Kinetics, 2003). “Do your clothes feel a little less tight? Do you just feel less bad? Short-term benefits could be having time for yourself to take a class, dance like you don’t really get to, socialize and laugh. The fitness part is almost secondary.”

Marcus and others advise keeping a diary of not just weight loss or time spent exercising, but also notes about positive changes in mood, sleep habits and overall health. “Write down if you did something active for 10 minutes. Then try to get in two 10-minute sessions. Feeling like you’re making progress motivates all of us.”

Jellison recommends looking to friends or family for positive feedback, “one or two people who are sincerely interested in the details of your progress,” to act as designated cheerleaders.

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There’s also nothing wrong with a tangible incentive every now and then -- as long as it’s not a piece of cheesecake. “When you lose 5 pounds, buy yourself a CD or call a friend,” Jellison says.

Analyzing past successes, even ones not related to fitness, can be inspirational, Marcus says. “I’ll ask people to think about how they changed some bad habit, or even how they managed to move their house or reorganize their office.... That can be a template for other things.”

A lapse isn’t a relapse

But breaking a resolution, whether by skipping three days of exercise or eating a handful of cookies, can send good intentions spiraling downward.

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Says Jellison: “A lapse is not a relapse. When you’ve done something you think, ‘I’ve failed, I might as well eat.’ You even see it in professional athletes, they get into a slump. It only means you took too big a step, and building back confidence comes from the results of small actions -- getting out of bed, putting on your gym shoes. You can do this any time you hit an obstacle.”

Many times, says Marcus, lapses occur when “people could have predicted a bad time,” such as the holidays, a wedding or a report due at work. “During that time, you can tell yourself you’re not going to be active, but plan how you will get back on track. If you give yourself permission, then you didn’t fail, and you can move on. Having to be perfect all the time really haunts us.”

Similarities do exist among those who manage to maintain their resolutions and achieve their goals, but the traits they share aren’t superhuman.

“They try to approach this as another problem-solving task,” Maidenberg says. “They think it through: ‘If I want to lose weight, what is it I need to achieve that goal?’ ”

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Those who “used strategies more,” says Marcus, were also more likely to succeed. “They had extra clothes in the car in case they wanted to go to the gym, they made commitments, read more articles and rewarded themselves.”

It helps to know that even the most motivated people have their moments of couch potato-dom.

“Trainers are no different from anyone else,” Shafer says. When he feels himself starting to slide, he trades work for play: “I ride my bike, play volleyball, join some activities.”

“Just remember where you are today so you can make changes tomorrow,” he says. “Remember why you started in the first place.”

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Three face the challenge

Just how difficult is it to begin a fitness program? We’ll follow three Southern Californians on their fitness quests and chart their triumphs, their defeats and learn the obstacles that can make it difficult to stay on course. We’ll track each one’s progress to see how their bodies, minds and spirits are responding and provide updates along the way of the vital statistics they’ve chosen to measure.

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Harry McLachlan

Age: 48

Height: 6 feet

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Weight: 245 pounds

Goal: To lose weight, get in shape by running and lower his cholesterol, now 233.

Harry McLachlan knew that when he started his own company five years ago, it would mean long hours. He didn’t think it would also mean a 45-pound weight gain.

With the new year looming, McLachlan is eager to get back to running, which he’s done seriously at various points in his life. “It helps you think more clearly and definitely improves the way you look and feel.... But as exercise gets away from you, it gets easier not to do it.”

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His goal, in addition to dropping 45 pounds, is to run three mornings in the workweek and once or twice on weekends. He’ll start at a slow pace and try for as much distance as he can. He’d also like to run a marathon again within a year. However, job demands take priority: “If I’m suited up to run and they need me, I have to go to work,” says McLachlan, who runs a Stanton-based cosmetics company.

As for his diet, “There are definitely things I can eliminate,” such as fast-food lunches. McLachlan also is determined to get off his cholesterol medication. “I’m at the age when I have to make a decision to do this,” he says.

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Yvonne Crafter

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Age: 46

Height: 5 feet, 7 inches

Weight: 225 pounds

Goal: To reduce body fat, now 47%, lose weight and get fit through walking and strength training.

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Yvonne Crafter isn’t happy that she weighs more than 200 pounds, but her reasons for wanting to drop some weight are different from what they were years ago. “I’m more concerned about health and not as concerned about appearance as I used to be,” says Crafter, a client-service representative for a medical lab in Van Nuys. “It used be that everything was about how I looked. But now I know more people with health problems -- my sister has diabetes -- and I could develop those problems.”

Her plan is to walk three to four days a week, eventually working up to 45 minutes to an hour each time. Two days a week, she intends to do weight training at a gym near her home. Crafter recalls how she felt when she was consistent with her workouts: “I was very toned and I really liked it.”

To get results, Crafter knows she must change her diet, which, she admits, isn’t the healthiest. She’s also thinking of joining a support group, “which will help with my motivation -- especially the eating part. It’s good to have another person to talk with and be accountable to.”

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Liana Neyer

Age: 34

Height: 5 feet, 8 inches

Weight: 153 lbs.

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Goal: To trim waist, now 32.5 inches; lower body fat, now 34%; and lose weight and tone her body via cardiovascular exercise and weight training.

Like many mothers, Liana Neyer’s life revolves around the needs of her 2-year-old son, which leaves little time for things like sleep, reading -- and exercise.

“I know I feel better when I exercise,” she says, “but I’ve just been making excuses for too long, that I don’t have the time. But if I really, really wanted to do something I could. I could do more than I’m doing now.”

Neyer’s weight gain since childbirth has been only 10 or 15 pounds. But it’s the too-tight clothes and “the fact that I’m starting to feel more flabby” that’s got her concerned. She also misses “the way you feel after a workout.”

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Her at-home strategy will include riding a stationary bike for 20 minutes three times a week and strength training using dumbbells, and plus sit-ups. She hopes to increase her time as she progresses.

With diabetes in the family, Neyer is aware she might be susceptible: “It’s something that’s always going to be in the back of my mind,” says Neyer, who lives in Torrance.


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