Before you launch into yet another New Year's slim-down plan, beware: Your workouts may be working against you. In a study from the United Kingdom, some new exercisers compensated for their workouts by eating as much as 270 extra calories a day -- negating more than half of the calories they burned. This self-sabotage has a ripple effect. As the number on the scale inches down at a painfully slow pace, many women give up altogether.
Don't be too hard on yourself, though -- it's not entirely your fault. Women's bodies are designed to stubbornly hang on to fat, possibly to maintain their ability to reproduce. A study in the journal Appetite found that for every pound of fat that women lost while dieting, their desire to eat increased about 2 percent. Exercise may trigger other defense mechanisms. When sedentary overweight women exercised for over an hour, four days in a row, levels of appetite hormones changed in ways that are likely to stimulate eating (the opposite was found in men), according to a University of Massachusetts study. And these studies don't take into account psychological saboteurs, like rewarding yourself with dessert after a tough workout.
But here's the good news: You're not destined to succumb to your body's stay-fat traps. While half of new exercisers in the UK study ate more, the rest showed no signs of feeling hungrier, ate 130 fewer calories a day, and lost more than 4 times as much weight during the 12-week study. The first step is to know what you're up against -- working out doesn't entitle you to eat whatever you want. Next, you need a smart exercise plan that curbs your hunger, coupled with an eating plan that fuels your workouts, not your appetite, so you don't take in calories you just burned off.
When it comes to workouts that fight hunger, less may be better -- at least in the beginning. In a Louisiana State University study, researchers discovered that overweight women who did an average of 60 minutes of easy exercise three times a week lost less weight than expected based on their calorie burn, probably because they ate more, says Dr. Tim Church, director of the Laboratory of Preventive Medicine at Louisiana State University's Pennington Biomedical Research Center. Those who did an average of 25 or 45 minutes of exercise three times a week dropped more weight, showing that they did not compensate for their workouts.
That's why our 6-week plan (below) starts with short, moderate-intensity workouts. Then you'll build up to longer, more vigorous routines to help keep pounds off over the long haul. You'll also practice yoga, which has been shown to diminish binge eating by 51 percent. Experts suspect that yoga may help by increasing body awareness, so you're more sensitive to feeling full and less likely to mindlessly stuff yourself.
More from Prevention:
4 days: 15–20 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio (walking, cycling, or using an elliptical machine). You should be breathing a little heavier but able to carry on a conversation.
3 or more days: Yoga (see below)
4 days: 20–25 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio
3 or more days: Yoga
4 days: 25–30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio
3 or more days: Yoga
4 days: 30–35 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio