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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 keep hearing that walking is very good for you and will help tone you up. Yeah, right! I walk all the time but my thighs just won't go away! What can I do for my thighs, flat butt, flabby hips and torso?

Walking, especially brisk walking, is great cardio exercise. It helps keep your heart strong and it burns calories. It is also the one popular form of exercise that people most often stick to. But one thing walking will not give you is muscle tone. Walking will build your endurance, but it won't build muscle. Even for the legs, the muscle building benefit is not all that great. That's why you aren't getting the results you were expecting - walking is the wrong exercise to reduce your thighs, shape your butt and tone up your hips and torso. To do all that, you need resistance training.

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What many people don't realize is that exercise isn't a haphazard endeavor - to get specific results, you must get specific. And all forms of exercise do specific things. Most forms of exercise can be placed into one of three categories: cardio, muscle building and flexibility. Walking, running, aerobic dance and bicycling are all examples of cardio exercise. So are the stationary bike, the elliptical machine, the treadmill and those other machines you find in the cardio room at the gym (which is why it's called the "cardio" room, of course!). Cardio is good for overall health and wellbeing. You can even lose weight if you combine cardio with a healthy, portion-controlled menu. Flexibility training includes activities such as Yoga, Pilates, and those stretches you're supposed to do after a workout (and hopefully you really are doing them and not skipping them). Flexibility keeps your body limber and mobile, and also can help with balance, which is especially important as you age. All this is very good, but only resistance training will have a real effect on the appearance on your body, or improve your strength. Resistance training builds muscle, and that's what gives you a flat stomach, shapely hips and butt, and firm legs and upper arms.

The most common form of resistance training is done with weights - either dumbbells and barbells, or the weight machines at the gym. Resistance training can also be done with exercise tubing or bands, or it can be done using body weight alone (squats, lunges and push-ups call all be done without weights, for example). There are, literally, many hundreds of resistance exercises and they can be combined to create an infinite number of routines. The sheer number of resistance exercises that exist can be daunting for a beginner, so it's recommended that you read some books geared towards beginners. Weight Training for Dummies and Kathy Smith's Lift Weights to Lose Weight are good starting points for women especially. It is also a good idea to use a personal trainer, at least for a few sessions to show you the ropes. Form is important to get the best results in the safest manner. In addition to building a strong, shapely body, resistance training will also help you burn more calories. Muscle mass is denser than fat mass, and takes more energy (calories), just to exist. So people very often discover that building muscle also helps them become leaner.

Will anything else build muscle aside from resistance exercises? Many Yoga and Pilates exercises involve resistance so, yes, they can build some muscle. And some cardio exercises can firm certain muscle groups - climbing stairs, for example, will create firmer legs and a tighter rear end. But nothing does the job more effectively than resistance training. And with resistance training, you target specific muscles that your normal cardio activities don't affect. For example, walking won't tone your arms or abs. Resistance training will.

So does this mean you should ditch walking altogether? Not at all. Walking has many health benefits - it energizes you and sends blood flowing to your brain so you are more clear-headed; it's a weight-bearing exercise that helps keep the bones in your legs and hips strong; and it's great for your heart. But to get the results you are looking for you need to add resistance training to the mix - not every day, maybe three times a week. And while you're at it, make sure you stretch out after every workout, both cardio and resistance training. An exercise program that covers all the bases - cardio, muscle-building and flexibility - will get you the best results of all.

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