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Feeling the Burn Without Burning Out

Ways to stay health-conscious this year


Joining a class is one way to fight workout boredom. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky. (Below) Try working out with a buddy to help stay motivated. Photo by Edward A. Brown

Year after year, well-intentioned Americans ring in the New Year resolving to shed pounds and eat right. They flock to gyms and weight-loss programs — membership often spikes on January 1 — only to overdo it, get discouraged, and go back to their bad habits. In short, they burn out.

“Burnout occurs primarily because people set lofty goals that are nearly impossible to achieve,” says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and a Sargent College clinical associate professor of nutrition. “They vow to hit the gym every day and they swear off carbs forever, but those promises often don’t make it past the three- or four-week benchmark.”

So, what’s the best way to start a fitness routine without burning out?

First, it’s important to set healthy — and achievable — goals. Salge Blake says individuals should lose only 10 percent of their body weight over six months. “So if you’re 160 pounds, you should lose only 16 pounds,” she says. “And if you’re 300, you should lose only 30. If you’re 160 pounds, that averages to losing less than one pound a week.”

The problem, she says, is that people want instant results. And when they don’t drop 10 pounds in the first month, they become discouraged and throw in the towel. “Be slow, steady, and realistic,” she says. “Try to look at it more as a chipping-away process, rather than going at it with a hacksaw and trying to make major changes all at once.”

Salge Blake recommends incremental changes, such as cutting out soda and bypassing vending machines, over the course of one year. For additional suggestions, click here.

Trainers urge similar restraint. Rather than rushing to the gym seven days a week — a surefire way to burn out — find a fitness program that suits your preferences, says Sofy Chan (SAR’07,’09), an athletic trainer at the Boston University Fitness and Recreation Center. “If you like routines, write it into your schedule,” she says. “If you can’t stand repetition, get a personal trainer, take a class, or join some intramural teams.” Or try something completely different, like kickboxing, squash, or racquetball lessons.

Working out with a partner can also be beneficial. “It’s a good idea to set similar goals, because there’s a friendly competition and you end up pushing one another,” Chan says. “You’re also less likely to quit if you’re working out with a buddy, because if you give up on yourself, you’re kind of letting down your friend, too.”

Other factors contribute to burnout. “The body hits a plateau about every two to three weeks,” Chan says. “This can be really discouraging, so I recommend switching your workout routine every few weeks. If you’ve been doing a lot of cardio, replace it with strength training. Then two weeks later, join a class.”

Chan notes that the only way to lose weight — and keep it off — is by burning more calories than you consume. “If you go to the gym three days a week but you’re drinking a fancy coffee from Starbucks every day, you’re not going to see any results,” she says.

And you won’t see results if you fall into another common trap: rewarding yourself with food after you start losing weight. “Of course you should reward yourself,” Salge Blake says, “but never with food. Get a manicure, buy yourself a nice sweater, or go to a show.”

She recommends adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet. They’re full of water and fiber, and “they fill you up before they fill you out,” she says. “So if you’re getting a pizza, skip the sausage and pepperoni and load up on the veggies instead. It will cut your caloric intake by more than 70 calories per slice.”

A treat every now and again is fine, Salge Blake adds, but go for quality over quantity. “If chocolate is your thing, buy a single Lindt ball rather than the jumbo bag of Hershey’s Kisses,” she says. “Ultimately, we need to find ways to relieve our stress outside the kitchen.”

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu. Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Feeling the Burn Without Burning Out

  • Anonymous on 01.05.2009 at 12:48 pm

    thank you for this informative article. i really appreciate it at the start of the year. all the best!

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