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Strong is the new skinny

The best way for women to cut fat and keep fit is strength training. And it is a myth that lifting weights gives you bulging biceps, says Sujata Mukherjee

According to a study by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), women lose 10 per cent muscle mass between the ages of 30 and 50. After that, the rate of loss increases. By 60-70 years of age, you lose 15 per cent of muscle strength and by the time you are 80, you have lost 30 per cent. When women start losing muscle mass, resting calorie loss (calories burnt while the body is at rest) decreases. As a result, fat gets deposited in the body, especially around the waist and abdomen as well as the internal organs (visceral fat). This increases the risk of diabetes, high cholesterol, heart diseases, fatty liver, osteoporosis and other lifestyle diseases. Moreover, due to low muscle strength, you tend to suffer frequent falls (and even fractures) while walking.

NEVER TOO LATE

A regular exercise regimen - cardio, strength and balance training - is the solution to all these problems. While it is best if you begin in your early 20s, it becomes essential after you cross 30 -when the secretion of growth hormone in your body drops suddenly and you start losing muscles. This, however, doesn't mean that older women will not benefit from weight training. Some nonagenarian patients in a nursing home underwent an eight-week strength-training programme as part of an ACSM study. Their fitness levels were found to have increased by 167-180 per cent. If you make strength training a habit (2-3 times a week), in just 3-4 months your muscle tone will increase, stress levels decrease and sleep becomes more restful. Your risk of lifestyle diseases will also fall sharply.

If you are hesitating because you heard that strength training bulks women up, have no fear. Orthopaedic and sports medicine specialist Dr Debabrata Kumar says, "The key to a muscular structure is the hormone testosterone. Usually women have a tenth of this hormone, compared to men. Their upper body muscle fibres are also much less than in men. This is why women's muscles never swell like men's, despite weight training." You may gain a bit of weight with strength training as muscles are heavier than fat but you will also lose a few inches as muscles take up less space. The bonus? You'll be very fit.

CLIMBING STAIRS HELPS

If you can't find time to hit the gym, try body weight training. Do five minutes of spot jogging, step jump, skipping or dancing followed by squats, push-ups, plank, hip bridge, crunches or bench dip. Walking lunges, jumping jacks or box jumping is also useful. As is carrying a baby or two heavy bags, walking up and down the stairs and walking very fast. Just make sure you warm up before you start.

Before you start an exercise regimen, check with your doctor, especially if you are middle aged or old, take medicines, and have a history of ailments. Don't go by the adage "no pain, no gain"; stop exercising if it becomes painful. Remember to drink water.

WORKOUT RULE OF THUMB

Current National Guideline for Physical Activity recommends twice a week strength training of every major muscle group - legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders and hands. However, recommendations vary from trainer to trainer. Some advise a full-body workout three times a week, followed by yoga and cardio the other three days. Others suggest upper body and lower body workouts on alternate days. Yet others ask you to train a particular body part on a particular day of the week. The thumb rule to follow: after strength training, a body part should be rested for at least 48 hours. Weight training puts your muscles under strain and some tissues undergo mild wear and tear. They need time to recover. During the recovery phase, new muscle tissues grow. This leads to a huge calorie loss and you eventually cut flab. The whole process takes about 48 hours. The only exceptions are core exercises - workouts that strengthen your internal muscles, such as plank, pilates, pelvic floor exercise, push outs, Swiss ball crunches, bridge and so on. You can do these workouts daily.

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