While you may not think it, if you carry your fat in your lower body -- stomach, buttocks and thighs -- you may be luckier than some. That's because exercise you would do to burn fat, like walking, running, biking or working out on an elliptical trainer, also work, at least to some extent, many of the muscle groups of the lower body. Working against resistance builds muscle, which can lead to a slimmer appearance, while cardio exercise burns the fat.
Enlist a trained professional to determine your body fat percentage. One way this is done is with a skinfold test and calipers, after which the trainer will compare your results with a range from "very poor" to "very lean" based on your age. If you fall anywhere above the "good" range, which would be 21 percent body fat or less for a woman of 30 to 39, for example, it means you are not carrying a dangerous excess of fat and can concentrate on toning, unless you're set on getting into the "excellent" or "very lean" range.
Engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, even if you don't need to lose fat. This is the basic amount of activity recommended by the American Heart Association and other health organizations for good cardiovascular health and weight maintenance. Moderate activity includes anything from gardening and housework to brisk walking. However, if you want to tone at the same time, you'll want to engage in more vigorous activity, such as walking fast, jogging or elliptical training. In addition, walking or running outside will make more use of your hamstrings and calves than gym machines that tend to favor the quadriceps.
Up your cardio workout to 250 to 300 minutes per week, according to MayoClinic.com, if you need to burn fat. At the same time, reduce your calorie intake so that the combination leads to a deficit of 500 calories per day. Note that you only need half that exercise time if your activity is vigorous.
Resistance train two to three times per week with squats or lunges to work the glutes of your buttocks, the quadriceps and hamstrings of your thighs as well as your calf muscles all at the same time. Both involve flexing the knee and hip joints until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Lunges involve stepping forward with one leg, while squats are done with both legs together and feet about hip-width apart. You can start your lunges holding on to a support or perform your squat with the assistance of a ball against the wall. Progress to holding dumbbells at your sides or a barbell across your shoulders.
Work your abdominals. The abs don't usually benefit much from these other exercises. Classic crunches work the rectus abdominis. Start by lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Place your hands at your sides, crossed on your chest or, for the most work, behind your head. Concentrate on exhaling as you bring your tummy toward your spine. Slightly tilt your pelvis up while lifting your head and shoulders off the floor. Do as many as you can without breaking form -- keeping your head aligned with your back -- and try to do two sets of the same number with a 30- to 60-second break in between. Start with as few as 15 and work up to 25 or 50.
Tighten the obliques with a crunch twist or bicycle. Start the crunch twist in the same position as the regular crunch, only place one ankle on the opposite knee. With one or both hands behind your head, concentrate on bringing the upper part of your torso up toward the bent knee, lifting your shoulder off the floor as you do. Progress to a bicycle where both legs are extended an inch or two off the ground. Alternate by bringing one knee in as you raise the upper torso on the opposite side toward it. Alternate sides. Do as many of these crunches as you can in proper form. Rest 30 to 60 seconds and try to do at least one more set of the same number.
- ShapeFit.com: Aerobic Training for Your Butt -- Will Cardio Help Get a Fit & Toned Butt?
- American Heart Association: American Heart Association Guidelines for Physical Activity
- Personal Fitness Training: Theory & Practice, Second Edition; Mary Yoke, MS
- MayoClinic.com: Exercise for weight loss: Calories burned in 1 hour
- When doing crunches, always think about bringing the shoulders or upper torso, rather than your elbows, toward the knees and keep your elbows out to the side so you won't pull on your neck.
- You are born with a certain body type and may not be able to change your look completely. However, proper diet and exercise benefits everyone.
- If you have a history of back problems, maintain a pelvic tilt while doing abdominal exercises and always keep one foot on the floor. You may also want to prop your feet on the wall or a bench with knees bent at 90 degrees.
- Never let your knees extend over your toes when doing crunches or squats.
- Never resistance train the same muscles on consecutive days.
- Consult a physician before beginning an exercise program, particularly if you have a history of pain or injury.
Nancy Cross is a certified paralegal who has worked as an employee benefits specialist and counseled employees on retirement preparation, including financial and estate planning. In addition to writing and editing, she runs a small business with her husband and is a certified personal trainer with the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA).