Improving Your Body Composition

Cardiovascular exercise (walking, treadmill, elliptical. cycling, swimming, ) is the exercise of choice to help you lose weight. It is your main calorie burner. However, although this approach might be a sure solution to short-term weight loss, it may not be the best strategy for long-term weight loss and maintenance.

Let's take a look at an example to see why. Our subject is a 200-pound woman who is 66 inches in height; she eats 2,000 calories a day and doesn't exercise. For her New Year's resolution, she decides to start a diet and exercise program in an effort to lose 60 pounds. She cuts her calories down to 1,400 a day and adds cardiovascular exercise to burn an additional 300 calories a day. She successfully loses 25 pounds in the first four to five months, so now she is down to 175 pounds. Believe it or not, when she was 200 pounds it cost her body more calories simply to move around. She had more body mass to support. Now that she has lost weight, her body has to burn less energy to move her lighter weight, so it doesn't cost as many calories just to live. She is starting to hit a plateau because she has lost muscle mass and not body fat.

So – what can she do? She can increase the length of time that she stays on the cardio equipment to burn more calories, but she is already doing 45 minutes every day of the week. She might be able to increase the intensity of the exercise (raise the level or difficulty), but she won't be able to sustain the exercise session for as long.  She can cut her calorie intake to a lower level, but this can result in increased hunger and fatigue and probably isn’t realistic.

At some point she needs to do something that will cost her body calories without having to starve herself or risk joint injury from over training. Enter strength training, which will affect her body composition in two ways. First, she is adding another type of exercise that will use energy (calories). Second, and most importantly, she is adding lean body weight in the form of muscle. Muscle is metabolically active - it burns calories. In fact, muscle is more metabolically active than fat by 30:1. Thus, the more muscle you have on our body, the higher your Resting Metabolic Rate - your metabolism. In addition, lean muscular tissue gives the sculpted look that people often desire.

Strive for 2-3 days of strength training in addition to your cardio activities. This will help you to reach and stay at a healthy weight. This combination will also help you to improve your overall body composition.  In order to maintain your muscle mass and lose body fat, you need to incorporate resistance training and make sure you have adequate protein.


Kathleen Baskett, MD is the Medical Director of Weight Management at St. Vincent Healthcare. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and the author of “Moving Forward: The Weigh to a Healthier Weight”.