28 Ways to Jump-Start Your Shape-Up Routine

You exercise and watch what you eat, but your weight still creeps upward. Here, small changes that can make a huge difference in your weight-loss plan.

By Bari Nan Cohen
woman stretch exercise picture

Strength Training

Making your diet and exercise routine work for you (again) is simpler than you think. We asked fitness and nutrition experts to zero in on the challenges that surface after 40 (sluggish metabolism, hormonal shifts, changing body composition), and they came up with 28 small, doable changes. We’ve grouped their suggestions into three broad categories: strength training, cardio, and nutrition. Choose just one tweak — the one that seems easiest — and try it for a month, about the time it should take you to notice an effect. Then try another, and another. Before you know it, you’ll be seeing the results you want.

If you’re not doing any weight training, start now. If you are, ramp it up. "Between ages 30 and 50, women can lose 10 pounds of muscle mass. For every pound of muscle you drop, you lose the ability to burn 35 to 50 calories a day," says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Body for Life for Women. "This means you have to take in 300 to 500 fewer calories a day if you don’t want to gain weight. But if you strength train with intensity, you build muscle and preserve your ability to eat with a little more freedom." To get more out of your weight workouts:

Integrate, Don’t Isolate

"Instead of working individual muscles, choose exercises that target more than one muscle group at a time," says Kathy Smith, developer of The Matrix Method: Ultimate Sculpt DVD. Multi-muscle moves, such as lunging while pressing weights overhead or doing a squat with a biceps curl, are more time-efficient and burn more calories than single-muscle-group training. Plus, when you work arms and legs simultaneously, you’re using your core muscles as stabilizers, so your abs (a prime 40-plus problem area) get worked, without crunches.

Heft Heavier Weights

Beginners need to start with light weights. But if you’re still using the same weight you’ve been lifting for years, now’s the time to increase it. Don’t worry about bulking up. "In fact, the more you lift, the leaner and smaller you will be, because muscle is more compact than fat," says Kathy Kaehler, author of Fit and Sexy for Life. Start with eight reps of an exercise, using a weight that’s slightly heavier than you’re used to. As soon as you can comfortably complete 12 reps, increase the weight the next time you work out.

Alternate Training Patterns

Try an easy-hard program: "If you give your muscles time to totally recover, you’ll get better results," says Douglas Brooks, an exercise physiologist in Mammoth Lakes, California. One week, limit your usual strength workout to one set for each exercise. The following week, go back to harder multi-set sessions, doing two to three sets of eight to 12 reps with heavier weights. Then switch back.

Combine Sets

"Instead of doing extra sets or more exercises for the same muscle groups, do back-to-back training," says Wayne Westcott, PhD, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA, in Quincy, Massachusetts. That means making your muscles work to fatigue — twice. For example, if you’re doing a chest press and you normally do 60 pounds for three sets, try reducing the weight by about 10 percent, to 50 pounds, after the first set; without resting, do as many reps as you can until you work your muscles to fatigue again. "When you do the second set immediately, you’ll target the slow-twitch fibers of your muscle, because you’ve already worked the fast-twitch ones to exhaustion," Westcott says. "This stimulates better muscle growth."

Slow Down

"When you move through weight-training exercises too quickly, you’re using momentum instead of muscle to lift the weight," Westcott says. This not only decreases the effectiveness of the exercise but also increases the risk of joint injury. "Aim to do a set — eight to 12 reps — in a little over a minute, about six seconds per rep," he says. Slowing your pace can also be an intensity technique: By adding a one- to two-second pause in the fully contracted position, or the "top" of the move, "You’ll get stronger fast," says Westcott, whose research on superslow lifting showed 50 percent strength gains.

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