It's a simple fact: Muscle burns more calories than fat. So getting stronger is a good incentive to help achieve a healthy weight.
No need to invest in store-bought weights: You can use your own body weight instead. Think push-ups, pull-ups, chair and toe stands, climbing stairs or any other activity that makes you lift your body in some fashion. And then there's always the more traditional approach of pumping iron at a gym or at home.
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"Strength training is a great place to start a fitness program," said Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian who is senior sports nutritionist at Healthworks, a group of Boston-area fitness centers. That's because overweight adults and kids can use their size to "excel at strength training," Clark said. Strength training "also helps protect joints and ligaments so that they don't get injured," she said. "And then as you get stronger, you can walk and do other activities better."
Whatever way you choose to build muscle, how you fuel up before and after your workouts can help speed -- or undermine -- your efforts. With that in mind, welcome to Week Three of the Fit for Fun Lean Plate Club challenge. This eight-week challenge is designed to help you get in shape for summer activities. Through these next five weeks, you'll find more ways to get active, take stock of your body, eat better and set goals for future activity. (As always, if you have any health problems, check with your doctor before embarking on any exercise regimen.)
Here are this week's goals. Whether you're already taking the Fit for Fun challenge or are just starting it this week, you can find more information at www.washingtonpost.com/leanplateclub.
Get hydrated. It's one of the most important preparations for a good workout, whether you walk, play tennis or lift weights. How much should you drink? "About two cups of fluid about two hours before physical activity," said Kristine Clark, director of sports nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. "And the American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking at least four to six ounces of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes while you're working out.''
For those who don't want to measure every ounce, Kristine Clark suggests: "Take a water bottle with you. Don't rely on the drinking fountain in the weight room [or the gym]."
Fuel up. Eat either a meal about three hours before a workout or a snack of about 100 calories about an hour before exercising. Studies suggest that "you'll perform better and will enjoy what you are doing if you are not hungry when you work out," said Kristine Clark. The best meal or snack is a combination that includes protein, carbohydrates and a little healthy fat. Examples: a cup of low-fat fruit yogurt; trail mix; half a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich on whole grain bread.
Get enough zzz's. "Sleep, especially rapid eye movement [REM] sleep, helps muscle growth," said Kristine Clark. "And you have to get into the REM phase, so you need to have been asleep for a period of time to experience it. So, believe it or not, you really need eight to nine hours of sleep a night."
Eat some protein and carbs after your workout. The protein helps repair microscopic damage to muscle. The carbohydrates provide glycogen, which fuels muscles. "Just little bits are needed," said Nancy Clark. "You don't need a 12-ounce steak, particularly if weight loss is your goal. Have a fruit smoothie, which provides protein and carbs, or spaghetti with some meat sauce. That's the kind of balance that I look for."
Reach first for food. While the benefits of sports supplements -- creatine, glutamine, nitrous oxide and whey protein powder -- are often touted, research suggests that food is still best. "There is this incredible belief system that nothing is better than supplements," said Kristine Clark. "But nothing matters more than food and its calories and composition."
-- Sally Squires
Share Your Tips or ask questions about healthy nutrition and activity when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club online chat, from 1 to 2 p.m. today, on www.washingtonpost.com. New To The Club? The Lean Plate Club is devoted to healthy eating and boosting activity. To learn more, and subscribe to our free e-newsletter, visit www.washingtonpost.com/leanplateclub.