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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 used to be a gymnast, run track and play volleyball. Everyone told me I had the ideal body. Since giving up gymnastics and working full time, I have lost the body I once had, but instead of gaining, I have lost a lot of weight. With a lot of overweight women in my family I do my best to stay thin, but I think I have gone too far. I now look like a skeleton and have lost all my muscles. I want the body I once had, but I don't know where to begin. Should I try gaining weight and then turning that into muscle, or should I lift and just load up on protein? Which way do you think would be the best and quickest way to get my butt back into top-notch shape?

(Article continued below.)

Right away it's clear that you have a misconception about weight. Extra weight doesn't "turn into muscle." When you gain weight, for the most part it's either muscle or fat (we'll skip talking about bloating and water weight for now), and fat doesn't turn into muscle, nor does muscle turn into fat. They are two separate things. I am assuming that you don't want to gain fat — that would only leave you looking flabby and feeling even worse about yourself. So by virtue of elimination, you apparently want to gain muscle mass (which is what gave you that ideal body in the first place). And there's only one sure method of gaining muscle — resistance exercise and eating enough to support the muscle you are building.

That said, eating enough to support more muscle mass does not necessarily mean "loading up on protein," either. Have you considered just eating a healthy, balanced diet, low in saturated fat with lots of vegetables, whole grains and lean protein? If you have something to eat before you exercise, and make sure that you have some protein and carbs within an hour after you weight train, you should be able to fuel your workouts and your muscles adequately. As for the rest of the day, just eat sensibly (i.e., healthy food choices in amounts in line with your activity level) and you should be okay. Unless you are a) training for a fitness or bodybuilding contest, b) an athlete or c) very obese, eating properly does not have to be an exercise in science, radical deprivation or extremes. You are a normal human being with a normal life who just spends too much time working and not enough time moving. Your best bet, as far as your diet goes, is to find a way of eating that pleases you and keeps your at your happiest weight, and then stick to it.

As for resistance (weight) training, it will help you get back the muscle tone you lost when you stopped doing gymnastics, but you shouldn't make it your only activity. Once people leave school and hit the "real world," many stop thinking of exercise as recreational and they start treating it like work. That's wrong! All the activities you mentioned doing before sound like fun, and frankly, most people don't particularly view a weight training session as a good time. Yes, you need to rebuild the muscle mass you lost, but you should be more active in general, just for a sense of wellbeing — and to put that new muscle to use. What kind of activities can you do in your spare time that you would enjoy? Take some time on your days off to indulge yourself in an activity like hiking, volleyball, tennis or dancing. Do you like to run? Maybe you could train for a 5K or a marathon. Whatever activity you choose to do, weight training will enhance it, along with building muscle. The point here is to make being fit seem like fun, not work - that way you will keep at it. If you want that fantastic body back, you can't seek out a temporary fix. You need a lifestyle change. Choose what you enjoy, and let a great body be the result of that.

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