Are you a skinny-fat person?

Have you spent countless hours on treadmills and stair climbers, but feel like you have to do even more? Does your exercise program consist only of aerobics classes? Does the scale say that you weigh the right amount, but you get nervous about putting on a swimsuit? If you answered, “yes” to the above questions, then you might be a skinny-fat person.

Many people in America are both skinny and fat. A skinny-fat person is simply a person who does not weigh much, but has a high percentage of body fat. They usually look perfectly normal in clothes, but they do not appear lean and toned in a swimsuit. This oxymoronic condition comes from our obsession with weight. Through diets and improper exercise regimens, some people have managed to make themselves fatter as they have lost weight. The worst part is that they don’t even know it. How is this possible? Most weight loss plans only focus on losing weight and do not care where it comes from. This ultimately results in losing muscle, which will cause a person’s percentage of body fat to increase.

Americans love to diet as a primary way of losing weight — so much so that they rarely ask if it is the best way to achieve their goals. The concept behind dieting is fairly simple: Eat fewer calories than you burn. This will result in weight loss, but it is only temporary and usually not maintainable.

The problem with losing weight through diet alone is that the body adapts very quickly. When we deprive our bodies of calories and create a caloric deficit, our bodies try to correct the situation, slowing down metabolism by shedding lean muscle. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue, and our metabolism is directly linked to how much we have. After our bodies get rid of enough muscle to balance the calories that we are taking in, weight loss will stop. This is classically referred to as “the plateau,” and it’s frustrating to the person dieting. This will ultimately result in even more severe dieting and muscle loss. By the time you reach your goal weight, your metabolism will be significantly less than when you started the diet, and you will actually have a higher percentage of body fat due to the lack of muscle.

Those who try to lose weight through aerobic exercise will suffer a similar fate. Aerobic exercise is vital to cardiovascular health, yet it is not the way to achieve that lean, toned look so many people strive for. In fact, excessive aerobic exercise will break down muscle tissue, creating the same problem as diets.

So how do you avoid becoming a skinny-fat person? Don’t try to lose weight — try to lose fat.

Instead of trying a crash diet that will leave you fatter than before, try to eat small meals at frequent intervals. Most experts recommend five to six meals per day. Exercise is a vital component to reducing body fat, but must have a concern for muscle. If all you do now is use the treadmill or go to an aerobics class, book a session with a personal trainer and learn how to use some of the resistance-training equipment. Resistance training must be incorporated into your exercise program to some degree. This will allow you to increase your muscle mass and speed up your metabolism, rather than slowing it down.

Remember, muscle tone has nothing to do with weight and everything to do with body fat. So stop worrying about what your scale says and measure progress by how you look in the mirror. Many people will see great results and will not lose nearly as much weight as they did on a diet that left them frustrated.

Jared Carter, CSCS, is the owner of Move Forward Fitness Personal Training Studio, 1616 Walnut St. Visit www.moveforwardfitness.com to sign up for his free newsletter, or reach him at (215) 399-3541 or [email protected].