Can I tone and shape my body without weights?

Jane mugshot for JQAHow can I tone and reshape my body without using weights? I am a 51-​year-​old woman. I was think­ing of invest­ing in a home Pilates machine I saw in a cata­logue. Also what about ton­ing tables?

If you are a healthy weight, ton­ing and reshap­ing are almost entirely down to two factors: gain­ing muscle and improv­ing pos­ture. The best way to do this depends on where you are start­ing from. If you have pre­vi­ously done little or no exer­cise, then almost any activ­ity you take up will show res­ults, as long as you do it reg­u­larly and with good effort.

Power walk­ing, jog­ging, swim­ming, cyc­ling, or using the car­dio machines at the gym will all improve muscle tone as well as boost­ing your heart and lung fit­ness, if you build up to a reg­u­lar pat­tern of three 20-​minute ses­sions a week. You’ll need to work quite hard dur­ing the ses­sions: a good rule of thumb is ask your­self “how hard am I work­ing?” and aim for an effort level of about 7 out of 10. While you will feel the car­dio and energy bene­fits within a few ses­sions, your ton­ing res­ults will need a couple of months to show through.

By the time women reach their 50s, it is usu­ally spe­cific bits that we are most bothered about: hints of bingo-​wings, tur­key necks, saggy bums, muffin tops and bal­loon­ing bel­lies. It’s harder to tar­get these spe­cific areas, but you can make a dif­fer­ence if you com­bine your pos­tural and ton­ing (muscle build­ing) efforts.

Pilates and yoga are two of the best ways. Both dis­cip­lines focus on “core” strength — abdom­in­als, bums and back muscles — but also train you to sit, stand and move with good pos­tural align­ment. There are hun­dreds of DVDs and teach-​yourself books, but I would always recom­mend that you find an appro­pri­ately qual­i­fied teacher and join a class if you’re just start­ing out.

Pilates machines are used for strength and flex­ib­il­ity train­ing. Although there are no “weights” involved, they are quite sim­ilar to gym machines, because you still work with ten­sioned pul­leys and ropes to do the exer­cises. Again, you would be wise to find a Pilates stu­dio and pay for some ses­sions on their equip­ment before spend­ing out on your own machine.

Toning tables may be a lovely way to chill out for an after­noon, but don’t ima­gine they can re-​sculpt your body while you lie around relax­ing. They don’t and they can’t.

Another altern­at­ive is a “whole body vibra­tion” machine. Now in many gyms, these machines are used as a short-​cut to muscle strength­en­ing, and they prom­ise quicker res­ults than tra­di­tional weight train­ing. An instructor should check to ensure it is safe for you and teach you how to use it.

One final note: in your 50s, it is very import­ant to do strength train­ing to com­bat the bone-​thinning that comes with men­o­pause. Whether you use your own body weight as res­ist­ance or gym machines, by keep­ing muscles in great con­di­tion you are not just look­ing good but look­ing after your bone health, too.

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