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This article appeared in Aware (April 2003), the magazine of the American Women’s Association of Hong Kong

Building a Healthy Body

Life Coach and Personal Trainer Dr. Patricia Bowmer talks about how to build a healthy, functional body.

How many sit ups should I do each day to make my stomach slimmer?

There are two problems with doing sit ups to reduce body fat in a particular spot.

First, we can’t reduce body fat in one part of our body simply by moving that part. If we could, Andre Agassi would have one very skinny arm! Fat is not just burned on the part of the body you are exercising; it will be burned on your whole body, and in the case a few minutes of sit ups, not much will be burned at all.

Second, with a layer of fat covering your abdominal muscles, you won’t see your six-pack, no matter how many sit ups you do. And you won’t appear slimmer.

So what do you do? To make your stomach slimmer (i.e., lose body fat on your belly, or any other part of your body) first improve your fitness. The most effective way to do this is through cardiovascular whole body exercise (e.g., running, speed walking, cycling, swimming, and most electronic equipment in the gym). This type of exercise burns far more calories than sit ups, and can be maintained longer.

Here’s a secret. We use glucose and fatty acids (fat) to fuel our aerobic exercise. To be used as fuel, fat needs a LOT more oxygen than glucose. In fact, one fat molecule requires four times the oxygen it takes to break down one glucose molecule. Unfortunately, less fit people cannot provide this amount of oxygen to their working muscles – their lungs, heart, and circulatory system are simply not efficient enough yet. It’s like a range top where all the burners don’t light – you can only get one pot boiling at a time. As your fitness increases, you can get all the burners lighting, and some of these burners are specifically geared to ‘cook’ fat.

So skip the sit ups, and get your whole body moving.

How can I increase my metabolic rate?

Your metabolic rate can be increased by increasing your lean body mass – the amount of muscle you carry. The higher your metabolic rate, the more calories your body consumes each day just to stay alive. To increase lean body mass, train with weights. If you are a beginner to weight training, get some professional advice about correct lifting technique and intensity. To build muscle, it has to feel reasonably challenging.

Should I use weight machines or free weights?

Weight machines offer the benefit of safe controlled movements and have a place in muscle building, but they do have some drawbacks. Let me show you around a typical gym.

On the first level, we see the weight machines. The people exercising here are seated on various plastic coated seats, moving heavy weights with cables. They look strong, but I wonder - is this how you carry your parcels on the MTR? I don’t think so.

Now come to the next level with me. That’s right, to the testosterone area. Don’t be afraid of the men, they are really very nice. But look around. There are only three or four women here with us. There are lots of dumbbells and barbells and those big round balls. People here are on their feet doing heavy squats, or working with a trainer on the bench press. They are not lifting pink and purple ‘girl’ dumbbells, but grey and black ‘manly’ ones.

What’s the difference? The people working with free weights are using their deep abdominal and spinal muscles to support them. This increases the total work in the exercise, but more importantly, the exercise translates more into how we use our body in real life. So the next time you carry heavy parcels on the MTR and can’t get a seat, your body will be able to support you safely.

Again, if you have not used free weights before, it pays to get some expert advice on technique, but the benefits to everyday life will be vast.

How quickly can I lose weight?

First off, let’s not talk ‘losing weight’ - let’s talk gaining health. Think what you want to gain, not what you want to lose.

Do you want to walk with more spring in your step? Carry heavy things more easily? Have a pain-free lower back? How about enjoy the outdoors? By focusing on enjoying an active lifestyle, you will be much more likely to make healthy changes in exercise and eating habits.

So…skip the sit-ups, do some whole body cardiovascular exercise, lift some heavy things using your whole body, and find the form of exercise that gives you most pleasure. Because in the beginning, your body was designed to move. When you find the will to move it, the shape of your body will become a side effect rather than a goal. And wouldn’t that feel better!

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