Your Summer Weight Loss Program

Get in shape for summer

woman exercising with trainer at gym
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I know it's time for summer weight loss when I hear quiet sobbing coming from department store dressing rooms. Once, I was in line to try on clothes and heard just that coming from one of the fitting rooms. The woman behind me whispered, "She's trying on a bathing suit," in the same tone of voice one might say, "She just stepped in dog poop."

If winter hasn't been kind, you may be tempted to crash diet or spend hours at the gym. This year, why not take a different approach and give yourself time to ease into a slow, healthy weight loss program? You'll get in shape, lose fat instead of muscle and make permanent changes that will last all year long.

How to Get Ready and Fit for Summer

Before you get started with a new exercise plan and diet, you'll need the following:

  1. A clean bill of health from your doctor if you've had an injury, illness or medical condition
  2. 20-60 minutes of time, 4-5 days a week (splitting it up if necessary)
  3. A commitment to follow a healthy diet most days of the week
  4. Access to free weights, resistance bands or machines

Your Cardio Program

The first part of any good weight loss or fitness program is cardio exercise. This is your foundation for burning calories, conditioning your heart, lungs, and body and getting your body strong for other summer activities you. If you're a beginner, you'll need time to work your way up to the amount of cardio you need to lose weight, about 5 or 6 days a week for about 20-60 minutes in your target heart rate zone. Use these tips and guidelines for setting up your cardio program:

  • Start where you are. Assess your fitness level and start with what's comfortable for you. If you haven't worked out in ages, you might start with 15-20 minutes 3-4 days a week and gradually add time and frequency.
  • Split your workouts. If you don't have time for long workouts, try doing short bouts of exercise throughout the day. Experts have found this is just as effective as continuous workouts.
  • Choose activities you enjoy. You'll be more motivated to stick with your workouts when you like what you're doing.
  • Vary the intensity, duration, and type of activity. Try short, intense workouts mixed with longer, slower workouts for variety. You can also try interval training once or twice a week to burn extra calories and boost your endurance.

Cardio Workouts

For ideas, browse through some of the cardio workouts below and give one a try, modifying the workouts as needed to fit your fitness level and goals:

To see how many calories you're burning with each workout, use a calorie calculator.

Strength Training

The second part of your program will be strength training to build lean muscle and raise your metabolism. To burn the most calories stick with compound movements (i.e., movements that target more than one muscle group). Examples would be squats, lunges, pushups, and pull-ups.

A few guidelines:

  • Target all your muscle groups at least twice a week, with a day or two of rest in between workouts.
  • Keep your reps between 8-12 to build muscle, 12-16 for endurance and 4-8 to build strength. Don't be afraid to use different rep ranges regularly to challenge your body in new ways.
  • Don't be afraid to lift heavy (women included)
  • Choose 1-2 exercises for each body part. For example:
  • If you're a beginner, start with one set of 15 reps of each exercise with a moderate weight, adding a set gradually.
  • Use enough weight that the last rep is difficult, but not impossible. You should be able to finish the last rep with good form. 

Do your strength workouts solo or on the same day as your cardio workouts. If you do them with your cardio, you may want to split your routine. Do just upper or lower body exercises to save time and energy.

Step by Step Strength Training

The following resources offer step by step instructions for working every muscle in your body.

Improve Your Diet for Weight Loss

While exercise is important, often the biggest weight loss changes come from your diet. Specifically, you want to make sure you burn more calories than you eat. One way to accomplish that is to follow a diet. But keep in mind that many people have trouble following strict diets, so you may find greater success in making small changes over time.

Whether you decide to follow a specific diet or not, there are a few simple tips that will help you stay in control of your eating:

  • Keep a food journal. The first step in making changes is to be aware of your choices. Keep a food journal for a week and write everything down. You'll be surprised at how many extra calories you eat and you'll also be pleased to find small ways to cut calories without starving yourself.
  • Don't skip meals. Many people drastically cut calories when they want fast weight loss and skipping meals is a popular choice. The problem is, this can actually backfire. Not only will you tend to eat more, but you may also actually slow down your metabolism which means your body is burning fewer calories.
  • Drink more water or tea. Staying hydrated will ward off fatigue and help you deal with hunger and tea is often a great way to curb your appetite. When you get the afternoon hungries, consider having a cup of calorie-free green tea (or whatever kind you like) instead of a candy bar.
  • Watch your portion sizes. This is always an obvious one when it comes to cutting calories and probably the most difficult one to follow. After all, what's a portion size? One way to manage portion sizes is to use smaller plates and bowls. It's an easy way to cut your portions without feeling like you're missing out.
  • Eat high fiber foods. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains fill you up without adding calories. One way my husband and I watch our calories is by always eating the fruits and veggies first before eating the rest of our meals.

You have a few tips under your belt, but now you need to figure out exactly how you'll approach your diet. Below are a few choices for how you can get started.

Follow a Structured Diet

Most of us have followed a diet at one time or another and they can be helpful in at least teaching us healthier ways to eat. If you choose to follow a structured plan like Atkins or Weight Watchers, you'll want to do some research first to find a diet that's right for you.

Make Small Changes in Your Current Diet

This is actually my favorite approach to losing weight. It's not as sexy as a diet—with most diets, you cut your calories so much that you end up losing weight more quickly than you do with small changes. However, with this approach, you don't have to give up your favorite foods, you don't have to change how you eat overnight and the changes you make are more likely to be permanent.

  • Add healthier foods to your diet. It's always easier to add to your diet rather than take foods away. Instead of cutting out entire food groups, try adding something healthy to each meal and eat it first. Salads, fruit, whole grain bread or a glass of water are just a few ideas and you'll find that filling up on the healthier stuff leaves less room for less healthful choices.
  • Change one part of your diet. Another way to approach this is to choose one unhealthy food you eat and get rid of it or find a substitute. Put all your energy towards changing just that one bad habit and leave the rest alone. It's easier to give up that Coke or candy bar when you know everything else stays the same.
  • Eat out less. Just cutting out one or two nights of eating out can make a major difference in your waistline. When you cook your own meals, you know exactly what you're eating, control how much you get and you can make sure the ingredients you use are good for you.
  • Try new foods and recipes. Finding easy, healthy recipes helps make nutritious eating more enjoyable. Trying new things is the only way eating healthy can become a way of life, so experiment—watch the Food Network or pick up some recipe books at the library or bookstore. Invest in healthy eating and you may find you actually enjoy it.

The trick to watching your calories is to find a strategy you can keep up with on a regular basis. If you work crazy hours, have kids to take care of and have no time, choosing a complicated diet plan may not be the best idea. On the other hand, if you have more time, learning how to make healthy meals may actually be something you would enjoy.

The components of a weight loss program are simple: Cardio, strength training and healthy eating. What isn't simple is implementing these different elements with a coherent program that fits what you like, what you can do and what you want to achieve.

Create a Workout Program

There's no right way to set up a workout program, but if you need some help, I've gathered some resources to help you put it all together.

Whichever route you go, remember that starting a weight loss or fitness program isn't just a summertime event...nor is it just about losing weight and looking good in a bathing suit. For true, permanent changes, you also need a desire to live a healthier life. It's that desire that helps you make the daily choices necessary for health, fitness and weight loss.

The horror of trying on swimsuits in the harsh reality of fluorescent lighting cannot be denied. However, you can make it easier on yourself by determining the right suit for your body. Fashion expert Cynthia Nellis says, "It may not be any easier to face that moment of truth during the first swimsuit try-on of the season, but at least swimwear variety and sizing improves every year."

Find a Suit That Flatters You

If you're small-busted, Cynthia recommends push-up bikini tops. If you're bigger on the bottom, try a sarong which is "the most flattering and chicest way to cover up."

For those blessed with a chest, go for support first. Try halter-top bikinis or go for a one-piece with a structured bust. You can also use strategically placed floral prints, stripes, and color blocking to add interest and flatter your figure.

To make your selection even less painless, try these tips from Cynthia:

  • Try on a size larger than you normally wear. You will probably find less tugging and a better fit.
  • Take advantage of special sizing (by bra size or long torso).
  • If you are trying on swimwear in a store, bend over, sit, stand and walk to make sure the suit will stay in place.
  • Take a look at your body in a three-way mirror; if you don't trust your judgment, take along a friend who will tell you how you really look in the suit.

One more recommendation: Always remember that there is no fluorescent lighting on the beach. The sun is much more forgiving, so no one is going to notice minor imperfections. Plus, in the dressing room, you'll be staring at yourself up close and personal. Don't forget that most people won't be nose to nose with you at the pool.

The trick to summer is to find ways to stay active, be healthy and build confidence in your body. If you're taking care of yourself, be proud of how you look and how well your body moves. The more you practice, the easier it gets and the better you feel about yourself.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."