Vacation soon? It’s not too late to get in shape

Times Staff Writer

It’s there, looming six weeks in the future: a summer vacation where bathing suits and shorts are mandatory attire. But the thought of squeezing into either sends you into a cold panic. Those 20 extra pounds that have been hanging on for dear life need to go. Can you lose them in a few short weeks without resorting to unsafe crash diets or questionable supplements?

Yes, if you have a will of steel to stick to a strict workout program and a sensible diet for several weeks. That means trading the sofa for a Spinning class, and ignoring the pastrami sandwiches that beckon like a siren.

Let’s face it: Most of us don’t have what it takes, and after a few weeks -- OK, a few days -- we cave in, figuring it takes superhuman powers to accomplish the task.


But we can take inspiration from Amber Dykes, a mere mortal who was motivated to lose weight by the prospect of reuniting with her college friends and sorority sisters at the end of June. Armed with little more than unfailing motivation and a good trainer, she’s shed 27 pounds in six weeks, dropped several dress sizes and hopes to lose at least 10 more pounds in the next few weeks.

On a recent early morning the 34-year-old Los Angeles secretary was at Workout Warehouse in West Hollywood, sweating through a set of walking lunges. Dykes works with trainer Jeanette Jenkins twice a week at the gym and follows Jenkins’ exercise videos at home. And the chronic candy snacker has radically altered her eating habits, now preparing healthful snacks and meals at home.

Jenkins’ hourlong program on this day included the lunges, lat pull-downs, flies, sit-ups and leg presses, but the routine is changed frequently to stave off boredom. The two days a week Dykes spends at the gym with Jenkins are supplemented with Jenkins’ workout tapes and occasionally with walks during her lunch hour. Her blinders-on approach of staying on course even caused her to dump a bag of See’s chocolates right after she bought them.

“Try to come down slower so you’re really using those muscles,” says Jenkins, directing Dykes through a series of tough ab crunches. “This is your last set. C’mon, dude!” Although the two laugh frequently, there is little downtime as Dykes moves quickly from one machine to another with barely enough time to swig from her water bottle.

Dykes, who moved to L.A. three years ago, had gained 60 pounds since she left college 11 years ago. “I want my friends to see I’m getting healthy and that I’ve made changes in my life,” she says.

With only a few weeks to accomplish what seems like a Herculean task, many people go the personal trainer route because it’s easier. The trainer designs a custom program, acts as a motivator and cheerleader, and holds the client accountable for those Jack-in-the-Box binges.

Other people choose to go it alone. An abundance of diet and exercise books, videos and Internet sites offer detailed regimens. Gyms have classes and equipment, and for those on limited budgets there are plenty of opportunities for free workouts, including walking, running and using park facilities for calisthenics.

Jenkins finds many clients coming to her this time of year wanting to slim down for vacations and family reunions. Most people, she says, are savvy enough not to shoot for unsafe weight loss with pills and dangerous starvation diets, and want to make lifestyle changes beyond reaching their short-term goals.

To help them she employs a variety of tactics. Workouts are a mix of cardio, weight training and flexibility components, and those are varied to train different muscles and avoid exercise ruts. “People tend to do the things they like to do,” says Jenkins, “like take Spinning five days a week. They’re afraid of trying a new class, that someone’s going to think they’re weak or they don’t know what they’re doing.”

The pressure of an impending trip coupled with the desire to show off a chiseled six-pack of abs can fluster otherwise sensible people. Trainer Steve Zim, owner of A Tighter U fitness studio in Culver City, says some men and women make the mistake of going from couch potato to gym rat overnight, piling on too much, too soon. Spending hours on the stair climber or running to excess can result in serious injury, halting the weight loss process and destroying future attempts at getting fit.

The foolishness continues: “Some people don’t drink enough water because they think it’s going to bloat them,” says Zim, “or they do crazy things like exercise in heavy sweatsuits. They’ll up the cardio or the weights and not take a lot of breaks, and then their blood sugar drops and they feel like they’re going to pass out.”

About 75% of his clients arrive with a goal and a deadline, whether it’s slipping into a bikini or a wedding dress. That’s a good start, says Zim, because readiness to commit to regular workouts is crucial to success. And, he adds, an imminent target date makes the process more fun -- like a beat-the-clock game.

He advocates a five-day exercise plan that’s a mix of weights, cardio and stretching, with heavier cardio for those who want to get lean instead of building up a lot of muscle. Two days a week off -- not consecutive -- help the body rebound from the workouts, and watching for even subtle changes such as muscle definition or looser-fitting clothing can keep incentive high.

Being faithful to a healthful diet is another key to seeing results, and both Jenkins and Zim say they favor low-fat diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats, such as chicken and fish. Occasional indulgences in favorite fattening foods are allowed, but the slippery slope of cheating can derail the most committed exercisers. This is where so many programs go awry, and why most people fail at accomplishing their goals -- a muffin here, a Dove bar there, and pretty soon those lost 10 pounds are found again.

Sydney Davis, one of Zim’s clients, embarked on a fitness regime a couple of weeks ago with two goals in mind: attending a family reunion in eight weeks and being able to get into a swimsuit and sundress before that. “Bathing suit time is always a challenge,” says the 39-year-old finance director at Paramount Pictures. “I want to feel good and look good in the clothes I put on. It helps to have a goal and a deadline, but it requires discipline.”

Davis was a gung-ho exerciser until last December, when her favorite trainer and group exercise teacher left the gym and she stopped working out regularly. With summer approaching, she decided it was time to do something about the 15 pounds she had since put on. Two days a week she works out with weights with Zim and does a day of weights on her own. Some days she’ll just do cardio such as Tae Bo, a step class or a hike, or combine weights with cardio.

Davis is optimistic about reaching her goal without having to starve herself or spend hours a day exercising. But she has more in mind than her summer plans. “I want to be healthy for the long haul,” she says.


Times staff writer Jeannine Stein can be reached by e-mail at