Everyone would love to have a set of great legs, and by paying some attention to diet, exercise and a few aesthetic extras, beautiful legs can be yours at any age. Ready to get started? Begin by focusing on the inside to keep joints healthy, muscles strong and ensure good blood circulation. Consider laser and vein treatments when necessary, then finish up with a few refining services and you'll be seeing improvements in no time.
Start from the Inside
While the goal is to have great looking legs, the journey begins on the inside by keeping muscles, ligaments and veins healthy. Legs are home to the largest muscles in the body, and they need to work properly to support most of the activities we do. Maintaining good flexibility and range of motion in the joints will not only keep legs healthy, but also impart a more fluid and graceful appearance.
Beginning with the joints, which are the places where bones connect and allow movement to happen, proper working order is key. In the legs, joints include the hips, ankles and knees – all common areas where injury can occur. Dr. Krystal Chambers, a physical medicine and rehabilitation spine physician with Resurgens Orthopaedics, recommends keeping joints healthy by consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. "This includes foods such as salmon, halibut, fresh tuna and walnuts," she says. Fortified foods like eggs, milk and yogurt can also be helpful or fish oil can be taken in capsules or even a smoothie form. "Other supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin may be helpful in decreasing joint pain in people with mild to moderate arthritis," she says.
Sufferers of chronic joint pain should limit high impact, weight-bearing exercises like running and high impact aerobics. "Look for lower impact exercises such as swimming, water aerobics, treadmill walking or the elliptical trainer," Dr. Chambers explains.
You will also want to take good care of your tendons and ligaments – they connect muscle to bone and bone to bone respectively, and can become injured due to repetitive use or overuse. Additionally, lack of stretching prior to exercise can cause problems. "Always stretch or warm up properly prior to engaging in a sport or exercise," Dr. Chambers says. Invest in proper shoes, and when new to a sport, begin slowly and gradually increase your intensity level.
Even with prevention, injuries do sometimes occur. For muscle pain or soreness after exercise, applying ice to decrease inflammation offers a quick fix. Over-the-counter analgesics can also help. For tendon, ligament or joint injuries, Dr. Chambers recommends resting from activities that aggravate the pain and OTC anti-inflammatory medications. If symptoms persist for seven days or more, it's time to see a doctor.
Keep it Circulating
Part two of keeping legs healthy on the inside is maintaining vein health. In many cases, unhealthy veins are apparent on the outside, so properly functioning veins can have an aesthetic importance too. There are two components to good leg circulation: arteries and veins. According to Dr. Louis Prevosti of VeinAtlanta, you can maintain artery health in the legs in the same way you maintain heart health – with exercise, keeping blood pressure stable and controlling blood glucose.
While getting a handle on the health of your arteries may sound easy, the vein side can be more challenging because the two main risk factors for developing problems are heredity and gender.
Also, people with professions that require long periods of standing must battle gravity as it pulls on veins and causes blood to pool. People with a family history of vein problems and those who stand a lot should utilize compression stockings when standing, sitting or traveling for long periods of time.
The bad news is that there are no known vitamins or dietary supplements that prevent vein disorders. And once the varicose or spider veins have developed, they will not go away, but compression stockings can help keep them from getting worse. On a positive note, Dr. Prevosti says that wearing high heels and crossing legs have not been shown to cause varicose or spider veins.
While damaged veins will not repair themselves, a variety of treatment options are available, and they are considered minimal, in-office procedures requiring no downtime. These treatments typically take less than an hour to perform, and normal activity and light exercise can be immediately resumed.
For spider veins, which are dilated capillaries visible through the skin, treatments include sclerotherapy and laser therapy, which are quick, relatively painless procedures. Sclerotherapy consists of medicine being injected into the vein with a fine needle, causing the vein to close. Until less than two years ago, sclerotheraphy injections contained a saline solution that burned, but the recently FDA-approved medicine, polidocanol, does not cause that stinging sensation. For smaller spider veins, laser treatments are also used, and again cause the vein to close down. Sometimes sclerotherapy and laser treatments are used together.
Varicose veins are the large, twisted veins that can be seen protruding underneath the skin's surface. People with varicose veins have a fourfold increase in developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is a blood clot. "The best test to check for a dangerous blood clot is a venous duplex ultrasound. A blood test to check for elevated levels of D-dimer can signify a blood clot. Both of these tests would only be done if there was a suspicion of a blood clot. Many blood clots are detected before they break off and become pulmonary emboli, which is a dangerous event," Dr. Prevosti says. "Wearing compression stockings will help prevent DVTs and ankle swelling."
In the past, varicose veins were dealt with by vein stripping, a surgical procedure performed under anesthetic that required a recovery period and possibly a hospital stay. For the past 10 years or so, doctors have treated varicose veins with endovenous laser therapy (EVLT) – using an optic fiber to shine a laser into the vein, causing it to contract – and micro phlebectomy – a piece-by-piece vein removal performed by making very small incisions along the vein. Both treatments are minimal procedures.
According to Dr. Prevosti, spider and varicose veins, as well as other issues like restless or achy legs, are caused by chronic venous insufficiency. Some venous insufficiency sufferers have visible symptoms like spider veins, but many will not, and will only experience issues like night cramps, swollen ankles or heavy, tired legs. Anyone with leg discomfort can get a venous ultrasound to determine whether there is an insufficiency issue. "Most people with venous insufficiency do not have varicose veins," Dr. Prevosti says. And sufferers from venous insufficiency only have a slightly increased risk of developing a dangerous blood clot – about five percent. Still, for those with venous insufficiency, treatment with radio frequency closure or EVLT will alleviate discomfort and provide a good deal of relief.
While keeping muscles strong will help develop beautiful looking legs, it is important to assess your kitchen before hitting the gym. "Diet is really important in keeping the legs strong," says Tammy Stokes, founder of West Coast Workout. "Beans and greens supply an excellent source of absorbable calcium for healthy bones."
Once you incorporate plenty of omega-3s, calcium-rich foods and a variety of fruits and vegetables into your diet, lower body exercise is next on the menu. According to Jeff Wolfson, a personal trainer with Lone Wolf Fitness, engaging in cardiovascular exercise as well as resistance training is a must because these training methods isolate individual muscles that make up the legs.
Wolfson advocates beginning your leg training with the feet. "Our feet are vital to maintaining proper hip and spinal alignment," he explains. "However, not only are they rarely trained, but for the most part, (feet) are flat out ignored."
He recommends working the feet and lower leg muscles by doing calf raises, toe raises and everting and inverting the feet. And then it's time for squats. "The best overall resistance exercise for the legs is squats – all kinds – air squats, jump squats, angel squats, power squats..." They can be performed anywhere, so take advantage of the time you spend standing in line, cooking dinner, brushing your teeth and performing other stationary activities. Round out this leg-friendly resistance routine with at least four days of cardiovascular exercise like cycling, walking or running.
Most people might feel that bulk is generally not a desired look. "I favor the look of toned legs over muscularly built legs," Stokes says. "Sexy legs are subtly defined, not overly muscular." She focuses workouts on exercises that lengthen and tone the hamstrings and quads and combine them with "bum lifting" exercises. "This creates a longer, leaner, dancer shape," she says. "When the inner thigh muscle is toned, the legs appear slimmer and ultimately shapelier, making the quad muscles appear smaller." Stokes advocates that there is no big secret to keeping legs healthy and strong. "Nothing outdoes a good diet, proper exercise, tender love and care," she says.
The Finishing Touches
For the icing on the cake, you may want to try an aesthetic treatment to have the outside match the inside. "Many of our patients come in for an overall 'summer leg makeover,'" says Dr. Alan Gardner, with Gardner Dermatology & Med Spa. "There are numerous treatments and products available that can make your legs look great."
Hair Be Gone
Laser hair removal is one of the most popular treatments to get legs summer ready. Remember it is best to start early because a minimum of five treatments are generally necessary, and they need to be spaced six to eight weeks apart for best results. If you're not a fan of lasers, there are plenty of other methods such as waxing, sugaring and even hair removal creams that can help keep unwanted hair at bay.
The Color Wars
Any unwanted coloring on your legs may make wearing skirts or shorts embarrassing. If you have any discoloration on your legs due to age spots or other pigmented areas, there are laser treatments or creams that will lighten these areas.
Leave Your Mark
Stretch marks and cellulite are one of the greatest areas of concern for many women. "We treat these with the Sublative-RF and Submime laser with great results," Dr. Gardner says. These treatments tone and tighten the skin and can be combined with body firming and tightening creams to use at home.
The final step in creating beautiful legs is getting a good glow. "Tanning helps hide veins, sun spots, freckles, stretch marks and scars," says Julie McGee, owner of True Glow Spray Tan. Avoid harmful tanning in the sun or a tanning bed, and opt for a good spray tan. The latest and greatest in spray tanning is a technologically advanced HVLP spray gun that delivers an even, natural looking tan. "The air pressure creates a mist that hits the body so precisely, that the days of streaky, splotchy sprays are long gone." A good spray tan will give you an immediate glow for up to 10 days, so the color will last through showers, sweating and sandy beach trips.
Dr. Krystal Chambers — Resurgens Orthopaedics, www.resurgens.com
Julie McGee — True Glow Spray Tan, www.yourtrueglow.com
Dr. Louis Prevosti — VEINatlanta, www.veinatlanta.com
Tammy Stokes — West Coast Workout, www.westcoastworkout.com
Jeff Wolfson — Lone Wolf Fitness, www.lonewolffitness.com