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Think of how much harder it would be to climb stairs or simply to walk if you were carrying around a backpack filled with 5- or 10-pound bricks. Now imagine how much lighter you would feel without the backpack. That's the feeling you get from losing as little as 5 pounds or 10 pounds.

A healthy diet and regular exercise not only improves your health but also puts the zip back into your step.

''Losing weight the healthy way means not only will you look and feel better, but you will have more energy,'' says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, of Northwestern Memorial Hospital Wellness Institute.

And what does it take to lose weight the healthy way? The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends increased physical activity and a healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, lean meats, fish, nuts, and beans.

Small Changes Add Up

So how do you go about getting there? The key, experts say, is making small changes you can sustain.

Think progress, not perfection. Forget strict diets and the old-fashioned trap of "all or nothing," says Blatner.

''The 'B' students are the success stories in our practice -- the folks who strive to make changes and lead a healthier lifestyle 80% of the time, and the other 20%, allow room for a little splurging,'' she says.

Some of the small changes she recommends include ''tracking your food intake, bringing an apple instead of going to the vending machine, trying a diet soda, going from a king-size candy bar to a small one."

"Work at your own pace," she says. "Just be consistent and keep up the changes.''

Blatner notes that losing 10% of body weight over a six-month period of time is the "gold standard" for improved health. At the end of the six months, Blatner suggests taking stock of your progress, evaluating the degree of difficulty, and setting a new six-month goal.

''If you managed the weight loss and feel confident you can continue, set your next goal for another 10%," she says. "Otherwise, strive to maintain the lost weight and reassess in six months.''

Even if you only lost 5% of your body weight, that's a step in the right direction.

''Anyone who actively makes healthy lifestyle changes will begin to see and feel the improvements in 8-12 weeks,'' she says.

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