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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've just been to another website and it said that toning is a myth. Is this true?

Toning is not a myth — if you regularly do strength training of any sort, with or without weights, you will most probably attain at least some amount of muscle tone. It's likely that the website you visited is not denying that toning exists, but it is attacking the semantics behind the word "toning." The issue here is that many women say they want to "tone" their muscles but they don't want to build them up. What these women don't realize is that "toning" and "building" a muscle are one in the same thing. Thinking they are two different things is a myth.

(Article continued below.)

Let's look at what happens when you lift weights. When you pick up a dumbbell, a barbell or use one of the machines at the gym, you are challenging a muscle or muscle group to move that weight a certain number of times. Performing this action stresses the muscle or muscles and actually creates tiny tears in the fibers. As the muscle heals, it grows bigger and stronger. So it's not really the workout that causes a muscle to grow — it's the healing process. That's why it's so important to allow a muscle to recover for at least 48 hours before working it out again. If you stress it again by exercising it before it has properly healed, you'll weaken it instead of strengthening it. Overtraining will also put you at greater risk of injury. This process of tearing down and repairing the muscle is the same whether you're a 250-pound bodybuilder bench-pressing 350 pounds or a 65-year-old grandmother lifting a two-pound weight. They are both building muscle. They are both creating muscle tone. The results will be clear for both of them. The bodybuilder will have bulging biceps with a larger circumference than grandma's whole chest. But grandma will look better, feel better and be more active. Those floppy upper arms of hers firm up because she has created muscle that gives them shape. She'll show up at her grandson's birthday party in a sleeveless top and her daughter will say, "Mom, I can't believe it — your arms are actually toned!"

So what's the difference between what the bodybuilder did and what grandma did? Clearly, they have different results. While the two of them are doing exactly the same thing — tearing down those fibers so that they increase in size — their approach to exercise couldn't be more dissimilar. The bodybuilder is pumping extremely heavy weights and his muscles are taking several days to recover. In addition — and this is actually the important part — he's eating up a storm. This guy is an eating machine. It seems like every other hour he's sucking down a protein shake or eating chicken breasts, rice and steamed veggies. The bodybuilder has to eat a lot to grow muscles the size of bowling balls. Big muscles need lots of fuel. Grandma, on the other hand, is most likely exercising the same muscle groups every other day as she gradually works her way up from two-pound weights to five. She is not interested in getting big — in fact, she probably wants to drop a couple of pounds — so she certainly isn't increasing the amount of food she's eating. She may even be eating a bit less. Hopefully she has talked to her trainer or a nutritionist about healthy eating so that she's eating the right things. Because grandma's exercise program is about as far from extreme as she can get, and she's not eating a whole lot, her results are the toned arms instead of the bulging biceps.

There are two different ways of looking at "toning" — one camp thinks that women should get real and accept the fact that they are actually building muscle, whether they think they want to or not. The other camp is perfectly comfortable with letting women use their two to 10 pound weights and call it toning. We really think it doesn't matter either way — the important thing is picking up that weight in the first place. Call it what you want. We call it getting, and staying, fit.

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