Lifting Your Way to Weight Loss

If you've tried a dozen diets but the pounds always sneak back, you may be able to lose them for good by making strength-training a part of your weight-loss program.

"Using your muscles can help you achieve and maintain a healthful weight," says Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., author of many health and fitness books, including Strength Training Past Fifty.

Too much fat is only half the problem of weight gain. "Then there is too little muscle," Dr. Westcott says.

Here's why: Muscles burn calories and keep people active, while fat is dead weight.

As people lose muscle through aging or inactivity, their metabolism slows, so they gain fat, become more sedentary, lose more muscle and gain more fat -- an unhealthy repetitive cycle that impairs quality of life and leads to many health problems.

Restrictive dieting alone just prolongs the problem because you lose muscle along with fat. This slows down your metabolism and reduces your calorie needs. Soon, you have more fat and less muscle than before.

For permanent weight loss, "you need to restore your body to a healthier muscle- to-fat ratio," Dr. Westcott says. "You want to build more active muscle while you get rid of the fat."

Strength training breaks the cycle by replacing lost muscle tissue, which increases your metabolism. You burn more calories and fight fat even while you sleep.

Strength-training workouts also burn lots of calories. A half-hour session with weights can easily consume more calories than a comparable period of moderate cycling, brisk walking or jogging. Plus, your body will continue to burn calories faster for up to two hours after a strength-training session.

"With more muscle and less fat, you'll naturally be more active, which will help you burn still more calories," says Dr. Westcott. "Slowly but surely, you'll work your way back to a more healthful weight."

Make sure that you talk to your health care provider before beginning any new exercise or strengthening program to be sure it's right for you.

Count the benefits

Weight control is just one benefit of strength training. With a regular program, you can also count these pluses:

  • Lose inches. Muscles are more dense than fat, so they take up less space.

  • Protect bone density. Strength training can maintain bone strength and increase bone-mineral density, helping to prevent osteoporosis.

  • Prevent or reduce lower-back pain. Well-conditioned muscles are better able to support the spine and cushion it against stress.

  • Avoid injury. Stronger muscles guard against fatigue that can lead to injury.

  • Improve athletic performance. You'll be able to perform better and be less fatigued.

"Weight loss and other benefits of strength training multiply when you add regular aerobic activities for endurance and eat a low-fat diet," Dr. Westcott says.

Easy does it

You don't have to spend all day in a gym to benefit from strength training. Studies show you can see significant results with two or three half-hour sessions a week.

For starters, Dr. Westcott recommends a routine of about 15 different exercises that work all major muscle groups. Do one set of 10 repetitions of each exercise.

Use slow, controlled movements that follow through the full range of motion for each exercise. Gradually increase the number of reps or add another set. When you can do 12 reps in good form, you're ready to increase the weight a little -- but no more than 5 percent at a time. Check with a professional trainer to see how and when you should increase the weight and what should be the maximum weight you should use.

"Almost everyone can reap the benefits of strength training," Dr. Westcott says. "Whether you're in your teens or in your 90s, a small investment of time and effort can make a dramatic difference in how you feel and in the things you're able to do in your daily life."

Check with your health care provider to see if strength training can help you reach your goals.

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