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Weight Training Can Help Keep Off Those Winter Pounds

November 20, 2000|Karen Voight

With cooler months and shorter days here, it's time to think about bringing your exercise plan indoors. If sunny days and skimpy clothes were a motivating force behind your workouts during the summer, you'll need to be vigilant about not packing on the pounds when the weather grows cooler or rainy.

With the right indoor exercise plan, you won't have to ring in the New Year 5 pounds heavier.

All you'll need are three sets of dumbbells (5, 10 and 15 pounds), a small area of the house and 20 minutes twice a week. You'll have to keep up your aerobics and watch what you eat, but adding strength training will give you an extra edge against winter weight gain.

How does this work? Toning up by building more muscle will rev up your metabolism. "Muscle is an active tissue, so it consumes calories, while fat is mostly inert and uses very few calories," explains Miriam Nelson, director of the Center for Physical Fitness at Tufts University in Boston and author of "Strong Women, Strong Bones" (Putnam, 2000), whose studies have shown that people who strength train lose inches and become leaner. "The more muscle we have, the higher our metabolic rate."

This is especially important as we age because in our early 30s we start losing 1% to 2% of muscle mass every year. This equals a 5- to 10-pound loss of muscle per decade. So even if we don't eat more, we may actually gain weight because our metabolism slows down.

To prevent this, you can either reduce your daily caloric intake (which is no fun, especially during party season) or add weight training to your exercise program so that your metabolism keeps humming along.

And there's more good news. Strength training can help build bone density and reduce bone loss. Women lose bone mass quite rapidly after menopause. This can result in osteoporosis, which is a disease from which 28 million Americans suffer. Studies show that lifting weights at least twice a week can keep women from getting osteoporosis.

More research also shows that pumping iron can boost our mood, lower our cholesterol and slow the rate at which our bodies age by limiting the damage done by free radicals. Besides all of that, being strong simply feels good. It makes other activities easier and we look better too.

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Your best bet between Thanksgiving and New Year's is to focus on maintaining your weight and improving your appearance instead of unrealistically trying to lose pounds. To help you stick to your goal, here's a plan.

Put together an efficient but bare-bones strength-training workout that hits every major muscle group in less than a half hour. Do this by paying attention to the thighs, buttocks, chest, upper and lower back, shoulders, biceps, triceps and abdominals.

Free weights are a simple and effective way to get started and increase your strength levels. For each exercise, do one set of eight to 15 repetitions. To keep it challenging, when you can do more than 15 reps move on to heavier dumbbells. Believe it or not, dumbbells can be more time-efficient and effective than weight machines because free-standing exercises use more ab and back muscles to stabilize your body. For a good primer on free-weight exercises, you might want to check out the book "Weight Training for Dummies" (IDG Books, 2000).

When you're working with free weights, the key is to move slowly and remember that each exercise ends with a focus point. Lift the weight to a count of two, pause at the top and lower it to a count of three or four. Remember to warm up with five minutes of marching in place, climbing stairs or walking on your treadmill.

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Here are some other ideas to stay on track and still enjoy the holidays.

1. Exercise first thing in the morning before you get too tired or distracted by the rest of the day's activities.

2. Before you go out gift shopping, eat something so you're not tempted by the high-fat mall food.

3. If you're going to a party, have a little snack like hot soup or a baked potato to take the edge off your hunger; if you're starving when you arrive, you'll most likely eat too many hors d'oeuvres.

4. Enjoy holiday treats in moderation but make a point to exercise the next day to work it off.

5. Instead of filling up on the chips and cookies you can eat year-round, limit yourself to the holiday specialties unique to this time of year.

6. At social gatherings, try this: For every alcoholic drink you have, chase it with a glass of plain or sparkling water. This will cut down on the amount of drinks you have and also keep the alcohol from dehydrating you. Avoid any drinks made with cream.

7. At the office, try to control your mindless munching when holiday candy and baked goods are everywhere. Make sure you have your own healthy snacks like apples and raisins stashed in a desk drawer.

8. Keep in mind that darker, shorter days can make you crave more carbs and sweets. To offset this, get outside for "sunlight breaks" whenever possible (of course, wearing sunscreen). Open your blinds and shades to take advantage of any natural light in your home or office. Combined with exercise, this will not only tame your cravings but you'll find you're more optimistic and energetic.

OK, so get going, there's no more excuses. You don't have to let the dark days of winter give you the blues or let the festivities of the season cause you to gain weight. There's never a bad time to start reaping the many healthy rewards that come from working out. In fact, it might be the perfect way to wrap up the year.

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New York-based freelance writer Michele Bender contributed to this column.

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Karen Voight is a Los Angeles-based fitness expert. Her latest video is "Abdominals and Back." You can contact her at kvoightla@aol.com.

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