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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'm 59, in good shape and I exercise most days of the week but I'm getting flabbier — help!

You don't say much in your cry for help, so we'll have to look at the problem from a few different angles. I can almost guarantee, however, that you'll find the reason for your dilemma, even though I'll be taking guesses at the specifics. That's because chances are good that you're falling into one or more bad exercise habits that are very typical. The good news is that knowledge is power, and once you correct the area that is tripping you up, you'll be on you way to firming up your formerly flabby self.

(Article continued below.)

My first guess is that you may only be doing easy cardio, such as walking on a treadmill or strolling around the neighborhood. There's nothing wrong with this sort of exercise — walking is great and it's the exercise that people are most likely to stick to once they've begun. The problem with walking is that it will do absolutely nothing to firm up your muscles, especially the muscles of your upper body. And even though you're using your legs, walking won't do that much for your legs and glutes, either — the exercise just isn't intense enough to build muscle strength and mass. And to firm up, you need to build muscle.

My second guess is that maybe you're doing some form of cardio exercise that's more than just casual walking — maybe you're walking really briskly, enough to make you sweat, or hitting the Stairmaster or Elliptical machine at the health club. Maybe you're even taking some aerobics classes, or doing aerobic dance DVDs at home. You feel like you're really working out, your heart's pumping, but your body isn't changing for the better. Now, that can be really disturbing — exercise is supposed to make you look better, right? Not necessarily. Keep in mind the word "cardio" in cardio exercise. Cardio refers to the heart. So when you do cardio exercise, the part of you that benefits the most would be, logically, the heart and circulatory system. Now, that's great. In fact, it's necessary to keep your heart and circulation going strong if you want to stay healthy and vital into your senior years (something you may be thinking about at age 59). The only thing is that, again, cardio workouts just don't do that much for your muscles. The Stairmaster or a good step aerobics class might do a little something for your back end, but not really all that much considering the effort you put in. You're burning calories with moderate to intense cardio, so you're less likely to put on weight. You may even lose a few pounds or at least maintain your current weight. But you'll still lack muscle tone, leaving you flabby and frustrated.

My last theory is that you could be doing both cardio and weight training and you're still flabby. Yes, that can actually happen! If you're grabbing 1 to 3 pound weights for your strength training sessions and you've been doing that for months, you are wasting your time. When you're weight training you need to use weights that are more challenging than what you would encounter during the rest of your day. Let's say you spend a half hour with 3-pound weights and then go home to cook dinner. You're making spaghetti tonight so you pull out the big pot and fill it with a gallon of water. Did you know that a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds? So why are you fooling around with 3-pound weights? There are times when light weights are appropriate. Certain group exercise classes, such as those inspired by Lotte Berk and The Method come to mind. But if you're using them for squats, triceps kickbacks and the like, they're just not enough.

Do you see where I'm going with this? No matter what's causing your flabbiness, I'm going to suggest that spend some quality time doing quality weight training. This is especially important for those in their 50s, especially women. People commonly lose muscle mass as they age, and the only way to keep the loss at a minimum (or getting back lost muscle mass) is by doing some form of resistance training. Flabbiness indicates lost muscle mass — exercising with weights will give your muscles shape and diminish flab. In addition, weight training keeps your bones healthy — the working muscles pull at the bone and keep them strong. If osteopenia and osteoporosis run in your family, this should be a big concern for you.

So if you haven't been using weights, I suggest you start now (with your doctor's okay, of course). And if you've been using very light weights, start going for the heavier ones. Don't worry — you don't have to attack those 50-pound dumbbells that the club's musclemen are always hogging! This merely means that if you've been using 3-pound dumbbells, see if the fives are more challenging. You should be able to do no more than 12 reps before the muscles you're working start getting tired. If you still feel fine after 12 reps, you may want to try the next weight level up. An even better idea is to temporarily hire a personal trainer to set up an exercise routine that is right for you. Make sure that he or she has experience working with your age group, so that you are given a program that is appropriate for you. You don't have to be afraid of a trainer — a good one won't "kick your butt" unless you ask for it! And you don't have to marry one, either (that is, unless you're single and looking) — just hire him or her for a few sessions to get you started. After that, you may want to check in every couple of months to change up your routine. That's all. It's really pretty simple. Once you get a good weight training routine going, I promise that you'll start to see that flab disappear!

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