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Staying the fitness course

Fitness-wise, the celebration of the new year is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's an excuse to overindulge, which means launching the next 12 months in the worst possible way - with a hangover.

Fitness-wise, the celebration of the new year is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's an excuse to overindulge, which means launching the next 12 months in the worst possible way - with a hangover.

On the other, it's when we resolve to do better (always a laudable goal). And many of those resolutions center on the body - specifically, making it thinner and more shapely as a token of our inward and spiritual grace, not to mention overall hotness.

Making resolutions is easy, of course; keeping them, not so. That's why gym membership and attendance typically spike in January and then steadily decline.

Larry Kaplan has witnessed the phenomenon often. A personal trainer and certified strength and conditioning coach, Kaplan, 40, runs a gym called Varsity Fitness in the basement of the Cynwyd Club in Bala Cynwyd.

There, Kaplan specializes in enticing children to embrace fitness and in improving the performance of elite athletes, especially tennis players. He has an array of exercise devices designed to increase strength, power, agility, coordination, and explosiveness.

Keeping people motivated is a personal trainer's central task, and lack of motivation is the main reason so many body-improvement resolutions collapse. How to better the odds? I asked Kaplan to share his suggestions.

Be patient and realistic. Don't expect to look like a supermodel or Adonis in a week, a month, or even a year. Set modest, easily achievable goals each time you work out. Compete with yourself. Try to improve or increase one thing. For instance, boost the load, add a rep, go slightly faster.

Meanwhile, don't look at the scale. Muscle weighs more than fat, and it takes time for your body to adapt and change. How do your clothes fit? How do you feel? Those are the important questions.

Don't overdo it. Your body can handle only so much stress, especially if you're deconditioned. Many people stop working out because they get sore. Getting sore is not the object, and it doesn't mean you had a good workout. Listen to your body. It will tell you when you're pushing too far, too fast, or too hard. Pain is its way of saying "STOP!" Heed it.

Dedicate your workout to a loved one. Lift weights to make your arms and back more sexy for your boyfriend or husband. Run at a brisk pace to pare your gut and fortify your heart so your wife doesn't become a widow and your daughter doesn't lose her dad before you can walk her down the aisle.

Hire a trainer (if you can afford one). Once you've booked an appointment with a trainer, you're more likely to show up and stick to it. A good trainer will encourage you, keep you motivated, and manage your progress so you don't get injured.

Vary your routine constantly. If you keep doing the same thing, your body will deliver the same results. Change is good not only for your body but also for your mind; it will keep you from getting bored.

"If a guy from outer space went to the gym, he'd think a treadmill makes people fat," Kaplan says. "That's because so many people do the same thing - they walk for 30 minutes at three miles an hour. Something is better than nothing, but you won't lose weight or change your body unless you challenge yourself. Examples: Walk two miles at a 4 percent incline, or intersperse the 30 minutes with one- or two-minute intervals at higher speeds to add intensity.

Build your fitness regimen around something you love. Kaplan remembers hearing a trainer tell a client, "I don't care if you hate doing this. Do it for 30 minutes anyway." Kaplan was appalled. "There's always something else you can do," he says. "Find something you like and do it."

Which brings to mind my piece of advice for 2011 (and beyond), courtesy of Roger Rosenblatt's delightful book Rules for Aging. I refer to Rule No. 16: "Do Not Go to Your Left."

Rosenblatt explains: "Going to one's left - or working on going to one's left - is a basketball term for strengthening one's weaknesses. A right-handed player will improve his game considerably if he learns to dribble and shoot with his left hand and to move to his left on the court.

"What is true for basketball, however, is not true for living. In life, if you attempt to compensate for a weakness, you will usually grow weaker. If, on the other hand (the right one), you keep playing to your strength, people will not notice that you have weaknesses."

In short, in the gym, and in other realms of your life, if you do one thing very well, keep doing it. "Establish your strength," Rosenblatt exhorts, "and strengthen it."