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You're at the grocery checkout with a few packages of frozen chicken alfredo and a tub of Ben and Jerry's - it's been a long week. But those tanned, toned (and, frankly, judgmental) figures on the glossies are making you rethink your choices.

"Psst!" Fitness magazine cover girl Kristin Davis whispers. "Follow me and GET A BODY YOU'LL LOVE BY MAY 31."

"Oh yeah?" Ellen DeGeneres, gracing the cover of Shape magazine, challenges. "I can give you FLAT SEXY ABS BY MAY 31."

A muscular Thomas Jane, on the Men's Fitness June/July cover, promises: "I'll help you find THE PHYSIQUE THAT'S RIGHT FOR YOU IN 6 WEEKS."

Beach season is on the horizon and the headlines on fitness magazines are screaming for attention. They promise six-packs, tight buttocks and flab-free arms in time for your first trip to the cottage, but fitness experts say that, in most cases, those dramatic results are next to impossible in such a tight time frame.

It's a lesson that Phoebe Montgomery has learned.

The bathing suits Ms. Montgomery, a 36-year-old social worker, bought on a vacation in Cuba had been haunting her for years. They were a size 6, and she hadn't been able to wear them after having kids. In May 2009, after she gave birth to her third child, she committed to losing weight. After five months of vigorous walks around her neighbourhood in Waterloo, Ont., and skipping late-night snacks, she was down to 158 pounds from 195.

But to get hit her target weight of 130 pounds, she knew she had to up the ante, so she picked up fitness guru Jillian Michaels's exercise DVD 30 Day Shred, which claims: "Lose up to 20 pounds in 30 days!"

"[Jillian]makes reference after level one that you're on your way to getting shredded," Ms. Montgomery says. "I just know that I wanted to pass out."

After 35 days of intense 20-minute interval training sessions, she'd lost three pounds.

Those results don't surprise Larry Brawley, the Saskatoon-based Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

"Looking at some kind of video on TV and thinking, 'I can do that,' investing in the video, and after two sessions … of trying to do the same kind of thing, their overall soreness is huge," Dr. Brawley says.

"The key thing about people being healthy and safe and actually getting lasting change is starting out moderately [at]what your body can tolerate without being exhausted each day," he says. From there, gradually build up to exercise four or five times a week, he advises.

The bold promises on glossies haven't made personal trainer Mathew Benvie's work easy.

"[Clients]read the programs on the Internet or Men's Health magazine and it makes some high promises without even giving the reader exactly what to do," the Haligonian says.

Many of his middle-aged male clients have asked for quick ways to burn stomach fat so they can go shirtless on their boats this summer, but he says it's probably too late in the year to nab those rock-hard abs by Canada Day.

He advises against the lose-weight-fast schemes that so many adopt in the late spring since it usually takes at least three months to see any kind of results (an estimate echoed by physiologists).

Last Christmas, Melissa Sadlowski, a Toronto dog groomer, was on vacation at Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls and wasn't impressed by the way her bathing suit hugged her body.

"I'm not confident when I'm overweight," she says. "I looked at myself and said, 'Oh my god. I'm going to go start at the gym.' "

With swimsuit season nipping at her heels, she got a membership three weeks ago. She's eased herself into the workout routine - cardio and resistance training twice a week for now - with the reasonable goal of slimming down one dress size by Canada Day.

"Some of the magazines out there … push women to dream about these expectations that they're not necessarily going to reach. For a 40-year-old to lose 40 pounds in two months? That's just insane," she says.

Tish Doyle-Baker, an applied physiology professor at the University of Calgary, says before trying exercises that claim to transform one particular body part, one must understand how the body holds and loses fat.

For women, the hips and buttocks are "the last place they'll lose weight, but the first place they want to lose weight," she explains. Men, contrastingly, have more lean body mass through their hips and thighs and tend to lose it fastest in their midline.

The only way to get the body to release the fat cells it stores is if the body has an energy deficit, she says. Translation: Adjust your portions.

"I know for a while diet was a bad word and we didn't want to go there. We have to go there," she says.

In Titia Emrich's quest to lose weight, a food overhaul was the chief component.

The 43-year-old stay-at-home mom in Waterloo does a combination of walking and running five or six days a week, and dramatically changed her diet to include far more fresh fruit and vegetables and far less salted, processed and carb-heavy foods.

Since the lifestyle change a year ago, when she weighed almost 200 pounds, she's slimmed down to 115 pounds (the final 15 was from stress over her father's illness - she actually wants to gain it back).

Every spring, like so many of her friends, she dreaded trying on her bathing suit to see if it still fit. For the first time, things are different, she says.

"This year I have no worries about what my body looks like because I've changed my body," she says. "I wanted to do something for me that was manageable for years."