Unwanted weight gain can happen to even the most health-savvy women. A perfect storm of stress, eating on the go, pregnancy and age-related metabolic slowdown can gradually pile on extra pounds.
After years of self-described "insane workaholic behavior," Columbia University associate professor Jenny Davidson experienced a gradual but significant weight gain. "The next thing I knew, I was 50 pounds overweight," says Davidson. To lose weight, she skipped the fad diets and instead focused on exercise and a healthy eating plan. Her reward: She lost 80 pounds and is now an avid runner and triathlete.
Want to do something similar? You can with these 10 simple strategies.
Rule 1: Know Your Caloric Needs
To stay healthy and run well while losing weight, you must determine how many calories you need. On average, a 150-pound, 5-foot-7-inch moderately active woman in her early 30s should consume about 2,100 calories per day. To lose weight, you must reduce your total caloric intake, whether by eating less or burning calories through exercise.
Research shows you're more likely to keep the fat off if you lose it gradually, says Monique Ryan, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. It's best to cut no more than 200 to 300 calories per day. According to sports nutritionist Suzanne Girard Eberle, if you maintain a diet too low in calories, you may be at risk for developing the female athlete triad, which causes menstrual irregularity and poor bone health, among other problems.
Rule 2: Set a Realistic Goal
Many women fall into the trap of setting a stereotypical goal weight, regardless of their body type. The truth is, every body is different, and your ideal weight for optimal health, energy and performance may not be what society says it should be (read: skinny). Consult your physician to set a healthy goal before starting a weight loss plan. It may also be helpful to have a professional measure your body composition, or muscle-to-fat ratio, which can be a better indicator of what you need to lose.
Rule 3: Stay Fueled
Even while losing weight, you need to replenish your energy stores--and to do it right. Active women need to maintain a balanced diet of 50 to 60 percent carbohydrates, 20 to 30 percent protein and 20 to 30 percent healthy fats. Don't rely on diet- or fat-free processed foods, which are often low in nutrients and high in chemicals.
Eat a breakfast of high protein, healthy-fat foods like eggs, oatmeal and low-fat yogurt. Snack on nuts, fruits or vegetables to avoid depriving yourself.
Keep in mind: While protein bars and sports drinks are great during and after long training runs, you don't need the extra calories for runs less than 60 minutes long.
Rule 4: Hit the Weight Room
Although resistance training alone doesn't burn a lot of calories, Virginia Tech obesity and exercise researcher Janet Rankin, Ph.D., says it does offer benefits to those trying to lose weight, from increasing bone density to reducing injuries. Research also indicates that developing more muscle mass increases your resting metabolism.
Rule 5: Go Long
However many miles your longest run is now, extend it once a week. According to the National Runners Health Study, which includes more than 120,000 runners, women who ran the greatest amount of weekly mileage were the leanest.
"There's no question, the more miles you run, the more calories you burn," says Mindy Solkin, a running coach and founder of The Running center in New York City. You burn roughly 100 calories per mile when running (depending on your weight), so if you go for a five-mile run, you'll burn 500 calories.
Rule 6: Team Up
A running coach and a personal trainer helped Davidson meet her goals. For other women, a support team may include a nutritionist or running partner. Check out peertrainer.com for an online weight-loss and exercise-support group.
Nan Howard's 53-pound weight loss journey began in 2007 at a weight loss support group meeting where other members encouraged her to walk for exercise. The North Carolina working mom slowly turned her walk into a run, and she began participating in local 5ks. Now she's encouraging other women in the group to start running.
Rule 7: Increase Intensity
A study conducted in 2006 at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, found that interval training--bursts of speed within an aerobic workout--burns fat and improves fitness more quickly than constant, moderately intense exercise. Researcher Jason Talanian recommends mixing interval training into your routine once or twice a week.
Rule 8: Crunch All the Numbers
Harvard weight loss expert Dr. George Blackburn asserts in his new book, Break Through Your Set Point, that people who weigh themselves daily are significantly more successful at keeping off excess weight. But also measure and record your changing body mass index (18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal), body fat percentage (aim for 14 to 24 percent), cholesterol levels (less than 200 total is desirable), blood pressure (at or below 120/80), clothing size and training distances and times. If after making positive changes you're still having trouble losing weight, ask your primary care physician to crunch another number, your TSH level. Hypothyroidism can cause weight gain.
Rule 9: Keep a Food Diary
Solkin tells people to keep a daily log of what they eat. When you see how that soda or bag of chips adds to your total, it might be easier to eliminate. In a recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health, participants doubled their weight loss when they kept a food log. To track your habits, use myfooddiary.com.
Rule 10: Train for Something Bigger Than Weight Loss
There's no better motivation to maintain an exercise schedule and eat right than a race date. For Howard, the recent shift from seeing herself as "someone who runs" to being "a runner" has been a revelation.
"People say 'What are you doing? You look so great,' and I say, 'I run four to six days a week,' " she explains. "You say that enough, and you start feeling like a runner."