Find Your Perfect Weight - Part 2Your Body Type: What You Can & Can't Change
-- By Dean Anderson, Fitness and Behavior Expert
You know that you want to lose weight. But how do you pick a goal weight that’s right for you? Do you find a celebrity, or even a friend, whose body you like and try to reach the same weight as him? Do you aim for a previous weight of your own, like what you weighed when you wore that junior prom dress 25 years ago?
Unfortunately, neither of these are good ways to set a weight loss goal. Finding your best weight isn't as simple as plugging your height, age, and gender into a formula and getting a number spit back at you. Your body is unique to you, and so is your ideal weight. Because it involves factors that are both objective (like your health risks) and subjective (like your personal satisfaction with your appearance), your ideal body weight is much more than a number on the scale: it’s more like a state of being.
You’re at your ideal body weight when:
- Your weight isn’t causing (or putting you at risk for) any health problems
- Your weight doesn't limit you from living the life you want
- You can accept your body as it is, without feeling uncomfortably self-conscious
- You can enjoy being in your own skin, without worrying too much about how you compare to others (or cultural ideals)
But let’s face it. Good health isn’t the only reason most of us want to lose weight. We also want to look great. We all live in a social world that tells us “thin is in” and fat is...well, whatever it is, it’s definitely not in. It can be awfully hard to feel good in your own skin if there’s quite a bit more of it than you see on those in the “in crowd.”
There’s nothing at all wrong with caring about your appearance or wanting to look as good as you can. This natural desire can play an important role in your motivation to lose weight, and your ability to keep going when the going gets tough.
But it’s also important to keep this desire grounded in your personal reality—not in the images you see in the media, or in someone else’s reality. We each have unique genes that determine our basic shape and size, how low we can go on body fat, how much muscle development and definition we can achieve, and how easy or hard it will be for us to reach and maintain the weight we would like to be.
The more you know about your own biological reality, the easier it is to set realistic goals and expectations when it comes to your body. It will help you avoid making yourself miserable by trying to achieve something that just can’t be done (or isn’t worth the constant struggle). So, let’s take a look at what diet and exercise can change and what it can’t, based on your individual biology.
Although there are truly almost as many different body types as there are people, scientists have grouped them into three general categories in order to study the relationship between body type, body composition, metabolism and weight. Which one sounds like you?
Ectomorphs are generally tall and thin and have long arms and legs. These people have difficulty gaining weight and muscle no matter how much they eat or how hard they train, because their metabolisms are geared to burn calories rather than convert them into fat or muscle. In some cases, the more the person eats, the more their metabolism speeds up to burn off those calories. They have the body type you tend to see in ballet dancers, runway models, elite long-distance runners, and some basketball players. Although we’re often bombarded with images of bodies like this, only about 5% of the population has this type of body.
Mesomorphs are generally muscular, shorter, and have stocky arms and legs. These people are strong and tend to gain muscle mass easily when they do strength training. They may find it difficult to lose weight, but they may not have that much excess fat even though their weight is higher than average for their height.
- Endomorphs are generally shaped like apples (men, especially) or pears (women, especially), and naturally carry more body fat even at their ideal weight. Their bodies may resist losing weight and body fat even when they are restrictive with their eating. In fact, the more they “diet,” the more their metabolisms slow down to resist weight loss. Overweight endomorphs don’t necessarily eat more than their slimmer counterparts—they simply tend to store more calories as fat than ectomorphs and mesomorphs. This is a handy trait to have if you have to contend with famines and food shortages—but not so handy otherwise.
Losing weight is not going to change your basic body type or shape—all it can do is reduce the amount of excess fat, and make you smaller overall. It can’t make stocky legs long and lean, and it can’t change where you naturally tend to store your body fat. If your genes program you to store a certain amount of fat between your skin and the muscles underneath, you just aren’t going to see those six-pack abs you’ve got hiding under there, no matter how much weight you lose or how many crunches you do. If you’re a pear or apple shape now, you still will be after you lose weight—you’ll just be smaller and healthier.
These differences in body type can also make formulas for figuring out your ideal weight pretty unreliable. If you compare a classic ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph of the same age, gender, and height, you’ll get three very different healthy and normal weights. Since most of us aren’t pure types, and fall somewhere in between the extremes on all the various dimensions involved, there is no simple way to “adjust” for these differences when trying to estimate an ideal body weight. Often, you’ll have to wait until your body lets you know you’re at the best weight for you by resisting further weight loss despite your best efforts.
But your body type doesn’t doom you to chronic weight problems or obesity, either. Even if you’re a classic endomorph with a metabolism that seems to snatch calories right out of thin air and deposit them directly on your hips or waist, you can lose fat and achieve a healthy weight. And you can look good too—even if you don’t have the body type that makes it onto the covers of fashion magazines.<pagebreak>
What You Can Change
While you'll always have characteristics of a certain body type, you CAN work on changing your body composition (the amount of fat versus the amount of muscle you have).
Virtually everybody can lose weight and become more fit. To lose one pound of fat, you need to create a 3,500-calorie deficit—no matter what your body type—by eating less and/or exercising more. What differs from person to person is the number of calories your body uses each day.
Ectomorphs are likely to burn quite a few more calories than everyone else just by sitting around. But it's still important for ectomorphs to make healthy food choices and exercise regularly because of the health and fitness benefits these practices provide.
Mesomorphs, thanks to their extra muscle, also have a pretty fast resting metabolic rate (RMR) that also boosts their calorie burning during vigorous activity. For weight loss, mesomorphs should emphasize high-intensity cardio exercise (20-30 minutes, several times a week) in order to use those extra muscles they’ve got to burn some extra calories, and strength training to preserve their muscle mass.
- Endomorphs will likely have to work harder to nudge their metabolisms away from fat storage mode and into fat burning mode. Becoming more physically active and more careful about what, when, and how much they eat are keys for weight loss. Endomorphs usually benefit from eating smaller, more frequent meals to minimize the opportunity to store extra calories as fat. Large calorie deficits are usually not necessary or helpful to endomorphs for losing body fat (that will slow down your metabolism and increase muscle loss), so making healthy food choices with moderate calorie restriction, like SparkPeople recommends, is usually the best eating plan. Endomorphs also benefit from high-intensity cardio and moderate strength training (like mesomorphs) and increases in general lifestyle activity like walking, dancing, gardening and yard work.