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Q & A

Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.

I am a 20-year-old female, not overweight but there are some areas that need work (thighs & stomach mainly). I love to work out but do not have time to do it as much as I would like. However I would like to try to get in some cardio a few times a week at the gym. Each day I will be walking about 20 blocks to and from school and I was wondering — how much cardio I should do outside of that to try and lose some weight? I was thinking 2–3 times per week for about 30–45 minutes — what do you think?

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Cardio is great exercise for your heart and circulatory system, and it certainly burns calories. But a good fitness program should include some form of strength training too. Strength training builds muscle tone, so you will burn more calories overall during the day because your lean muscle to fat ratio has improved. That's right — when you strength train regularly, you are burning more calories even when you are not exercising! Cardio alone will not do that. In a perfect world, you would have time for both cardio and strength training. Well, guess what? The world may not be perfect, but there is a way to fit both forms of exercise into your already-crammed schedule. It's called circuit training.

Circuit training consists of strength or resistance exercises interspersed with short bursts of cardio activity. Alternating cardio with strength training will keep your heart rate up while you're toning your body, so you'll burn calories and build muscle at the same time. And since not a moment of your workout time is wasted you can complete the whole routine in 30 to 45 minutes. There are a number of different approaches to circuit training — some routines have you perform a round of perhaps a half dozen strength exercises for about a minute each, then performing 5 minutes of intense cardio such as jumping rope, step ups or kick boxing moves, and then repeating the circuit. Other routines involve alternating a minute burst of cardio with 30 seconds or a minute of one strength exercise, and doing that over and over again, changing the exercises each time until your time is up. You can circuit train using dumbbells, machines, or just your own body weight as resistance. You can do it at your local gym, at home or out of doors. The variety is really endless. Most approaches to circuit training have a few things in common: the strength training exercises are usually compound, which means they involve more than one muscle group (lunges with bicep curls, for example). That way you fit as much exercise into the workout as possible. Circuit training sessions always begin with a warm up, then end with a cool down and stretch — this is an intense workout and you need to properly ease your body in and out of it. Circuit training can be done two to three times a week on non-consecutive days (you need to give your body a day off to rest, and for the muscle fibers to rebuild). This style of exercise routine builds a lean, toned look, rather than a bulky, muscular build. You say that your thighs and stomach area need work — cardio alone won't do much about that, but circuit training will tackle these areas with pleasing results.

Sound interesting? Do you want to get started? Circuit training is not all that hard to do. There are a couple of excellent examples of circuit training routines on the About Exercise website: one that involves a series of strength training moves interspersed with cardio; and one that alternates each move with a cardio burst. If you are a gym member, perhaps you can hire one of their trainers to get your program started off on the right track. That way you'll learn the proper form for each move and you'll end up with a handful of circuit training routines that you know are well put together. So put on your workout clothes, strap on a watch and get moving!

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