Toning up requires two basic steps: strengthening and developing your muscles, as well as losing the fat overtop them so they're more visible and defined. Diet and exercise modifications can help you get fit and lean. However, how much effort and time you'll need to look toned depends on exactly how fit you'd like to be.
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Reduce Calories to Lower Body Fat
Looking toned requires lowering your body fat percentage, and, to do that, you need to restrict your calorie intake. When you're burning more calories than you're taking in with food and drinks, your body starts mobilizing fat -- and shrinking fat cells -- to make up the energy deficit.
Find out your target calorie range using an online calculator, which will estimate how much you burn daily based on your age, body size and gender. Most people should subtract 500 to 1,000 calories each day to create the calorie deficit needed to mobilize fat. That will mean you're eating between 3,500 and 7,000 calories fewer per week than you burn, so you'll lose 1 to 2 pounds of fat.
Choose a realistic calorie intake target that's at least 1,400 calories, recommends the University of Michigan, or you risk slowing your metabolism by eating too little. For some people -- particularly older women, who need fewer calories -- a 500-calorie deficit might take you below 1,400 calories. In that case, choose a smaller calorie deficit -- for example, 250 calories -- to lose a half-pound each week, or cut 250 calories and burn an additional 250 calories through exercise to lose a pound weekly.
Eat Muscle-Building Foods
Your diet needs to support muscle growth when you're trying to tone. If you simply start losing weight, but don't support your muscles with adequate nutrition, you risk becoming "skinny fat" -- having a healthy body weight, but too much body fat -- when you hit your goal weight.
Plan your diet around sources of healthy complex carbohydrates, lean proteins and unsaturated fats. Lean protein is especially important; it's a rich source of amino acids, which your body needs to build muscle tissue as you gain weight. And you'll need approximately double the protein of a sedentary person if you want to gain weight -- 0.8 grams of it for each pound of body weight.
Opt for whole grains over refined grains, including fruits and veggies at your meals; selecting skinless turkey or chicken breast, eggs, nuts, beans and nonfat dairy for protein over fatty cuts of red meat; and getting healthy fats from avocados, fish, nuts and olive oil instead of fried foods.
Train to Tone Up
Strength training is a must if you want to tone your body. It not only builds muscle tissue, which boosts your metabolism to help keep you lean, but regular strength training keeps tension in your muscle fibers -- think of it as low-level "flexing" -- so you look more fit. Hit the weight room two to three times each week for a full-body strength workout that includes exercises for your lower body, core, and upper body.
You'll also need aerobic training to tone up. This type of exercise increases your calorie burn to boost fat loss. For example, a 155-pound person burns 260 calories during a 30-minute high-impact aerobics class or during 30 minutes of moderate stationary rowing or biking. Simply adding one of those 30-minute workouts to your routine five times weekly would burn an extra 1,300 calories a week, which translates to roughly one-third of a pound extra lost each week.
Setting Realistic Goals for Toning
Everyone's definition of "toned" is different; for one person, that might mean moderate muscle definition; for another, it might mean visible or 6-pack abs. The more lean you'd like to look, the more time and effort you'll need to put into achieving your goals.
For example, a healthy body fat level is relatively easy to achieve once you've developed healthy habits; you might need to forgo some social time to work out, and consciously work to maintain healthy lifestyle habits. But it won't significantly disrupt your lifestyle, explains Precision Nutrition. Getting lean enough to see a six-pack requires a lot more time -- you may have to give up or significantly cut back other activities, and you might struggle to participate in social gatherings that involve food.
Find the balance that allows you the ability to live the healthiest lifestyle you enjoy. Ultimately, a sustainable lifestyle will keep you looking and feeling fitter and healthier than an overly restrictive one that makes you unhappy.