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How to Exercise for Weight Management & Enhanced Body Composition

Mahmoud Ibrahim, Certified Personal Trainer with a Bachelor's Degree in Athletic Training and Sports Science.



Obesity is a serious problem that reduces life expectancy and affects one's quality of life. Obese individuals have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, osteoarthritis, and certain types of cancer.

It is of utmost importance at this point to establish the difference between obesity and merely being overweight. Being overweight can be defined as excess weight related to desirable body weight (20% or more over desirable body weight) or as a body mass index (BMI) in excess of 29.3 for women or 29.8 for men. These criteria do not take body composition into account and, therefore, are very limited as indexes of obesity and may result in misclassifications of obesity. Some individuals with low BMI’s have as much body fat as people with higher BMIs.

Obesity, on the other hand, can be defined as a body fat percentage of 25% or higher for men and 32% or higher for women. Regardless of their body weight, people falling under these categories are considered clinically obese and, therefore, are at higher risk for developing any of the above-mentioned diseases.

Obesity Can Be Classified as:

  • Android Obesity: Upper-body obesity or apple-shaped (more frequent in men).
  • Gynoid Obesity: Lower-body obesity or pear-shaped (more frequent in women).

At the other end of the spectrum, people with too little body fat (below 3-5% for men and below 10-13% for women) have a relatively higher risk of fluid-electrolyte imbalances, osteoporosis, bone fractures, muscle-wasting, cardiac arrhythmias, Sudden death as well as renal and reproductive disorders.


Facts Affecting Body Composition Changes

  • A better, healthier body composition can be achieved through decreased body fat, increased lean body mass, or both.
  • Fat loss is not synonymous with weight loss. Losing one kilo of fat and gaining one kilo of muscle can result in a significant change in body composition percentages without affecting body weight at all. On the other hand, one kilogram of body weight lost does not necessarily mean fat-loss, in some instances, such as with very low carbohydrate diets, weight loss could be due to loss of muscle tissue (water depletion).
  • Research has shown that low-to-moderate intensity exercise for a longer duration can result in the more significant body-fat loss than higher intensity - shorter duration exercise. I recommend an aerobic exercise intensity of 60 to 70% HRR (65 to 75 HR max) and 70 to 85% RM muscular work for optimizing positive body composition changes.
  • Gaining muscle mass can significantly increase the Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), thus leading to greater caloric expenditure even at rest.
  • Weight loss can only be achieved through a negative energy balance or caloric deficit (caloric expenditure exceeds caloric intake). The most effective way to create a caloric deficit is through a combination of diet (restricting or reducing caloric intake) and exercise (increasing caloric expenditure), and vice-versa for weight gain.
  • Exercise is more effective than dieting for maximizing fat loss while minimizing lean tissue loss.
  • Men can lose weight faster than women because men have a relatively higher RMR.
  • RMR remains elevated for 30 minutes or longer after vigorous exercise.
  • “Spot-reduction” exercises do not preferentially mobilize subcutaneous fat stored near the exercising muscles.
  • It takes an average of 20 minutes for a given individual to deplete ATP and glycogen stores before primarily using fat for fuel.

General Guidelines for Better Body Composition

To optimize body composition (i.e. increase lean body mass and decrease body fat), use the following guidelines:

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1. Use a combination of low-to-moderate intensity cardiovascular work with muscular hypertrophy and body-sculpting exercises.

2. Accompany exercise program with a healthy diet that ensures either a caloric deficit (for those who want to lose weight) or a caloric balance (for who wants to improve body composition without losing weight).

3. Use a variety of periodization modalities to avoid plateau and optimize positive body composition changes.

4. Make some, or all, of the following lifestyle changes to increase your total caloric expenditure:

  • Walk or ride a bike for daily errands instead of driving.
  • Consciously engage muscles during simple tasks of everyday life (engage your core when bending to pick up something, keep your grocery bags slightly away from your body by consciously recruiting your deltoids, feel the work in your lower-body muscles when you are getting in or out of a chair, ... etc.).
  • Eliminate (or at least minimize) the use of remote controls. Get up when you need to change the TV channel, switch the A/C on or off etc.
  • Participate in a sport during your “off’ training days.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals (every two and a half to three hours).
  • Go get what you need instead of asking someone to bring it for you.
  • Use the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Boil, steam, grill or bake your food instead of frying it.
  • Use skimmed or low-fat products instead of full-cream ones.
  • Limit alcohol intake. Replace some (or all) of alcoholic beverages with water or juice.
  • Associate certain daily tasks with a certain activity (stand-up and walk around the house every time you are on the phone, contract your abdominals every time the doorbell rings, squeeze your scapulae together for ten seconds every time your baby cries, etc.)
  • Make pacts involving physical activity with a supporting friend or relative (“I will walk to your house every day to give you my newspaper and take yours”, “don’t let me eat more than two of your delicious cookies”, “if I ask you to bring me something, please tell me to go get it myself", etc.).

5. Engage in aerobic activities on most days of the week.

Guidelines for Muscle-Gaining (Lean Body Mass)

In order to ensure that your weight gain is due to increases in lean body mass rather than body fat, you should use the following guidelines:

  • Use periodical body composition assessments to monitor progress (every 4 to 8 weeks).
  • Design a resistance training program if you aim to increase muscle size (hypertrophy).
  • Plan a high-calorie, well -balanced diet, in which 60 to 70% of the total caloric intake is derived from carbohydrates, 12 to 15% from protein and less than 30% from fat.

Best of luck!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Mahmoud Ibrahim

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