Fitness Articles

Find Your Perfect Weight - Part 2

Your Body Type: What You Can & Can't Change

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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)
In Part 1 of this series, we looked at several of the methods experts use to determine when your weight puts you at risk of having health problems, and how you can use those methods to set a realistic goal weight for yourself.

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.

Body Types Makes a Difference
 
Genetics play a large role in determining your basic body type and how easy it is for you to gain or lose weight. Here’s an example. In one recent study, researchers overfed a group of people 1,000 extra calories every day for eight weeks and found that there was a huge difference in the amount of weight gained (ranging from 3 to 16 pounds)! The researchers concluded that the people who gained less weight were able to “waste” the extra calories by fidgeting more and giving off more body heat. The people who gained more weight lacked this capability and simply stored the extra calories. These differences are related to basic differences in body type.

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.
If you don’t think you fit completely into any of these categories, don’t worry. Very few people are pure types—most of us have characteristics of all three types to one degree or another, with one type being more dominant. The important thing to know is that there are many body types, and all of these types are normal—and all of them are basically unchangeable.

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.

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.
When you keep your focus on what you can change, you avoid the frustration that comes with unrealistic weight or appearance goals, helping to pave the way for you to achieve your best weight and appearance. In Part 3 of this series, we’ll look at some of the mental exercises you can use to keep yourself on this track.

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Member Comments

  • I'm probably a mesomorph. I put on muscle very easily and tend to look like I weigh less than I do because of muscle mass. I also look horrible anywhere below the top end of my BMI range...way too thin. I am definitely overweight now but even at lower weights I'm a bigger person...in that I'm muscular and fairly large framed. Even being obese I can see a lot of muscle definition and my arms and legs are fairly thin looking.
  • I am an endomorph, typical pear shape. I am cool with that. I have always had a larger bottom than my top. I also benefit from that as my waist size is smaller (I carry less fat around the waist) and so I am have a lower risk of heart disease. Sure I might have to work a little harder to keep that bottom half toned and trim but I still love my girly figure!
  • NEWLISALUCAS
    I became very frustrated and angry when you said that if you're an apple or pear shape, you will always be an apple or pear shape. That is a straight out LIE!!! I was once an apple shape, but not anymore. Working out and eating right turned me into a pear and I've only lost 10 pounds, 15 pounds away from my goal. This may be true for some people, but most definitely not true for all.
  • "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."

    This is scary - I actually went a little under my original goal weight - (which was to get back into my size 2's and 4's) but I DO want to lose a little more so I can take a chance on quitting smoking. Now, despite exercising every day, and following ALL of my weight loss diet, I am no longer losing weight. Nearly everyone says women are more likely than men to gain weight when they quit smoking, and I am SO afraid of getting back to where I was horribly unhappy, hiding in long, flowy clothes, refusing to go to the places I loved most (islands and crowded beaches and pools) because I SO hated what I looked like. I am a "natural pear" - but it took a LOT of work to get shapely again. (I used to model petites, and I could, again.)

    But the major cause of my weight gain was STRESS and eating the wrong cheap foods. The stress (always financial) is worse than ever, I am deep in debt due to buying healthy foods, and I do see Ramen noodles coming back in my future. That is why I am SO determined to get at least a little underweight...and the scale is not moving anymore.
  • My goal weight is a combination of a target weight wich is roghly based on an estimated muscle mass and then based on reaching an very lean body fat percentage so long as I find I'm not losing strength or energy if I get too lean. I can gauge this by my performances during training. I think I'm at 9-10% now, and want to reach 7-8% if possible. I'll admit, using the mirror is my #1 tool. I think there's about 2-3lbs I can lose still I plan ot take my time and shave off on average around 0.5lb per week. Why get so lean??? Well, 2 seconds per mile pace running to be gained with each lb lost.... lose 3 lbs and I drop around 30 seconds off my time.

    Part of it is the challenge. I'm already as fast as I was in high school. But I didn't pay any attention to my diet, my technique wasn't as good and my trianing volume was actually quite a bit lower overall (other than during swim season). Quite frankly, I can place in the top 3 or even win a few local races that I was only in the top 10 or 2nd or 3rd years back. Winning races is just fun, especially the larger they are.
  • The body type theory is under debate in the field, as I understand it.

    I've also noticed that my own shape has changed dramatically depending on the kind of exercise I do. So I'm starting to think it's bunk, just from my own experience, as well...
  • ALWAYSANGIE
    Interesting. Thanks for the article. My husband is definitely of the ectomorph variety. He's slim, never gains weight and sleeping next to him at night is like sleeping next to a furnace that's in overdrive. I can cuddle with him for five minutes of I grit my teeth and bare it but I end up sweating because he's that hot.

    I fall into the mesomorph/endomor
    ph category. As a child I was always short and curvy but still slender except for the booty and thighs and could eat whatever I wanted without gaining weight. After a whole milk addiction during my first pregnancy, I gained 80 lbs. Although I could eat as much junk as I wanted and never gain weight, I also could eat healthy, starve, or exercise 'til I was purple and never lose. My weight always stayed within a five pound range. Part of this, I believe, was due to an undiagnosed (at the time) thyroid problem. That taken care of (*years* later, ugh!) and getting put on Metformin for my "borderline/predi
    abetic" blood labs, I'm finally making slow but steady strides in losing weight and feel like I can actually succeed.
  • An OK piece, but since almost no one is a pure type (and these terms have been around for decades--there must be something more informative by now), it doesn't really help very much to decribe the types and their implications for people trying to lose weight. However, the concept of things you can control and thing you cannot is always a helpful one.
  • Lucky me - I'm definitely a mesomorph by this description, and that's fine by me. I don't envy or lust after other body types either. What I value is strong, agile, capable. I love what my body can DO.
  • BRENNA_A
    this is most definitely on queue. I'm probably a meso-endo. makes sense why I began to lose weight after starting to eat 5-6 small meals a day. I ate all the time and was moving, not all th etime. makes a lot of sense now. thanx.
  • Nice article and helps clarify things a bit when trying to honestly figure out a goal weight and realistic expectations on what can be changed. I will save this one so when the frustration hits I have something to read to let me know what's what.
  • I have burned 7000 more calories than I have eaten over the last two weeks and have gained a pound. What does that mean? Very frustrated.
  • Just the kind of therapy i needed!!!! i am endomorph without a doubt...!! restricted my eating lost 19lbs and after a while i stalled...got even more restrictive and it worsened felt tired, sick, headache, nausea etc...plus no weight loss. started eating more and i was back to normal maintaining what my body has called ideal weight.....i now brisk walk 5 days a wk, concentrate on cardio 30mins and strength sessions..and NO large calorie deficits. i have maintained my weight for 2 years well without the knowledge that i was an endomorph!!! thanks a heap for this article...i can sleep peacefully tonite.....:-))
  • awesome article! I think I'm a combination of these types.
  • What great information! I never knew that I, as a ectomorph would have a very different need and type of exercise to do to be successful.

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.