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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 16-year-old girl who is unhappy with her body. I'm 5'1 and weigh only 105, but I am so out of shape. I used to be a gymnast and a cheerleader, but those sports left me with huge legs and a stomach. I used to be all muscle, but it has turned into fat. I'm trying to get back into shape, but nothing is working. Do you have any ideas for me?

As a teenager, you have an advantage over those of us who are - ahem! - quite a bit older because you should be able to get back into shape easily and pretty quickly. You just need a bit of discipline and direction. It helps, too, that you are not overweight and merely in search of some muscle tone. But before discussing your options, there are a couple of myths you bring up that should be addressed.

(Article continued below.)

You say that your muscle has turned into fat. It may seem that way, but that's not exactly what happens. You apparently created a lot of muscle mass when you were cheerleading and performing gymnastics. When you stopped doing these activities, here's what really happened: because the muscles weren't being used as much anymore, they shrunk in size. Meanwhile, since you were less active but probably consuming the same, or nearly the same amount of calories, your fat cells grew bigger. Basically, the flabbiness of the extra fat took the place of the firm muscle mass, even if you didn't gain weight, or even if you lost a few pounds. Some people do believe that their muscle turns to fat when they stop exercising, but as you can see, it's actually a change in body composition. What you want to do is change the composition back to favor muscle over fat - in other words, you need to make those fat cells shrink again, and get your muscles to grow a bit.

Your complaints about the results of your previous activities - the way they increased the size of your legs and stomach - suggest that possibly you are one of those uncommon young women who gain more muscle mass than most. Either that, or you were just extremely active. Gymnastics and cheerleading take quite a bit of muscle and dedication, so perhaps it was a combination of both. Most females of any age don't find themselves with this sort of dilemma. Usually, it's difficult for a woman to build enough muscle to "bulk up" to any significant extent. Of course, it's also possible that you were just self-conscious about your legs and stomach (teens frequently perceive their bodies as being out of proportion, even when that's not true). In any case, you want muscle tone, but you don't want to be as muscular as you were when you were doing gymnastics and cheerleading. You're in luck - there are many options.

What you need to do, if you want to lose fat and gain muscle tone without bulk, is combine some resistance training with some cardio. Running, for example, is a great cardio activity if you want leaner legs, but it doesn't give them tone. For tone, you can do some squats and lunges with light weights a couple of times a week (make sure a trainer or teacher shows you proper form). High impact aerobic dance and kickboxing is also good, as are outdoor activities such as inline skating or mountain biking. You might consider exploring one of the more vigorous forms of Yoga - Power Yoga or Ashtanga will help you build long, lean muscles. Pilates is a good way to tone your abs - and back - without creating too much muscle. The important thing is to find activities you enjoy doing, and to be open to trying new forms of exercise. You might check out some of the women's fitness magazines, like Fitness or Shape, for some ideas and inspiration. You also need to make a commitment to exercise. Can you devote an hour, three to five days a week to exercise? If you really want results, you'll try for five days a week, but always remember to take a day or two off weekly to give you body time to rest and recoup. Overdoing it is as bad as not doing enough. And don't do the same activity every time - maybe you can run one day and do some strength training work the next day, then on another day take a power yoga class or kickboxing. Variety will keep your body guessing - if it gets too used to a workout, you'll stop seeing results. It's also boring to do the same exercise everyday, so change it up.

Whatever you decide to do, stick with it. It may help if you have a friend or two who can exercise with you. Even though you can get results quicker than, say, your mom would, it'll still take time. You didn't lose your muscle tone overnight, and it may be a few weeks or a couple of months before you notice really visible results (that's not saying that it couldn't happen sooner - sometimes you can start seeing tone in as little as a couple of weeks, too). If some part of your new exercise routine isn't working, do try something else - just stick with the schedule. Good luck!

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