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Still exercising ... still fat

When it comes to weight loss, is exercise worth all the effort? How long does it take to lose the fat? And can time on the court do it? Smart Fitness answers your workout and weight-loss queries.

When it comes to weight loss, is exercise worth all the effort? How long does it take to lose the fat? And can time on the court do it? Smart Fitness answers your workout and weight-loss queries.

Have an exercise question? To e-mail us, click here. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: I am trying so hard to lose weight. I exercise daily — one hour on the treadmill or elliptical — yet nothing is budging on my body. I am totally frustrated. Why isn't exercise helping me to lose weight? Is it even worth it?

A: Don't give up on exercise for weight loss, says exercise physiologist Gerald Endress, fitness director of the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C., which caters to overweight clients.

"Every day I see people come into our center and they definitely lose weight," he says. "There are two factors that are key: restricting their diet and promoting exercise."

You don't discuss your diet, but keep in mind that "you will always be able to out-eat your workout," says Endress. "You've got to reduce your calorie intake."

Case in point: An average-weight person will burn about 100 calories walking a mile. So it will take a lot of steps to burn off a 300-calorie candy bar or 600-calorie plate of pasta.

Endress and other fitness and weight-loss experts say people tend to overestimate how many calories they burn through exercise and therefore the extent to which physical activity can help them lose weight.

"While exercise burns calories, the amount of exercise it takes to be a substantial contributor to a weight-loss program is quite a bit," says Warren Franke, an associate professor of kinesiology and director of the Iowa Sate University Exercise Clinic in Ames.

In the National Weight Control Registry, an ongoing study of 5,000 people who have lost weight and kept it off, most say they exercise about an hour a day, so you're on track there.

Generally speaking, the weight-loss equation comes down to calories in versus calories out. It takes a deficit of 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat. So to lose just 1 pound a week, for instance, you need to create an average 500-calorie deficit each day. You can achieve those deficits through various combinations of diet and exercise.

All that said, some people still will lose weight faster than others. Why? Franke calls it the "$64,000 question."

Experts point to genetics, possibly gender (men seem to lose weight faster, says Endress) and dietary factors, but there are many unknowns here.

Confounding matters, our ability to lose weight at any given time may change with age and fluctuating readings on the scale. Endress says that the thinner you get, the more exercise it may take to continue losing weight. "So as you get lighter, you may need to work out longer or at a higher intensity." Think of excess weight as carrying around a heavy backpack, he says. It's a lot easier to walk when you're not carrying that backpack, or if it's not as full.

Instead of doing the same old treadmill or elliptical routine, you might increase the speed or incline, or mix in some new activities — squash, step class, salsa dancing — to kick things up.

And keep in mind that the feel-good benefits of exercise may offer another benefit to a weight-loss program: motivation. "What we hear from our clients is, 'Once I start exercising, I eat better,'" says Endress.

Q: I have 50 pounds to lose. I have been at the gym daily for six weeks and have followed my trainer's meal plan with very few "cheats." The weight is not coming off. Will it ever come off?

A: It probably feels like you've been working out forever, but six weeks isn't so long when it comes to tackling an extra 50 pounds. After all, it took you a lot longer to gain that weight, didn't it?

If you lost 1 to 2 pounds a week, which is what weight-loss experts say is a safe amount, you would have lost 6 to 12 pounds so far. But that's if you worked super-hard at it — with minimal "cheats."

Patience is key. Beyond that, take a close look at your trainer's meal plan. Unless your trainer is also a dietitian, he or she isn't qualified to devise an entire meal plan for you. Consult a nutritionist.

Q: I have a problem. I only love to do ONE thing that is considered exercise. I am an avid (three to five times a week) tennis player. But my body does not respond even a little bit to tennis anymore, and I'm as fat as ever. How can I take this ONE fitness activity that I love to do (and work very hard at) and make it work for me (weight-loss wise)? Help!

A: Certainly you can work up a sweat on the court. But as you note, your body may not be working as hard as it used to.

"Your body kind of acclimates to the same type of exercise," says Endress.

So how do you work harder? You could play an extra set, get a tougher partner or add another day. You might also consider working with a personal trainer who specializes in tennis and can offer some suggestions.

And again, look at your diet. If you're celebrating your wins with a slice of cheesecake, for instance, you could easily undo your gains.

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.