Is Being Really Lean Really Worth It?

By , Molly Galbraith
Say what?!  Is being really lean really worth it?  This probably sounds like a crazy question coming from a trainer who helps clients reach their fat-loss and physique goals.
 
Before we get started, let me say that I realize this is a very ambiguous question.  ''Really lean'' is relative, and I will tell you up front that I don’t have an answer for you. Only you have that answer for you. This blog post is simply intended to help you realize a few things:

1.    Everybody is different.
2.    Some of us can maintain leaner physiques than others.
3.    Going beyond a healthy level of leanness for YOU is a stressor.
4.    It’s not normal, and it may not even be healthy, to walk around shredded all the time.
5.    How lean do you want to be, and will you sacrifice what it takes to get there?
 
Let’s explore each of these.

1.    Everybody is different.
I have a saying: ''If you want longer, leaner muscles, get different parents.'' We were all given a unique genetic code that affects how our bodies look.  I will never be petite, or skinny, or naturally tan.  (I tried to fight this simple fact for many years, and I almost destroyed my skin in the process.)
 
Ouch. It hurts me just to look at this.

There are things we can do to make the best of our genetics, of course, but at the end of the day, we are the product of our parents. (Darn you Dad, and your Scotch-Irish heritage!) The sooner you accept this, the more you can focus on making the most of what you’ve been given, as opposed to trying to change things that won’t change.
 
2. Some of us can maintain leaner physiques than others. 
We all know that person who eats whatever they want, doesn't exercise, and still has an absolutely gorgeous and lean physique.  (It’s even more annoying when they have natural muscle tone too, right?  I mean…how is that even fair?!?) We also all know the person who is very strict with their diet, exercises religiously, gets enough sleep, and takes great care of themselves, yet they struggle with carrying more body fat than they’d like.
 
Remember, we all have a genetic predisposition to look a certain way.  If you come from a very lean family, chances are, you can maintain a leaner physique than someone who comes from a heavier family.  (I am not ignoring the environmental factors that come into play here in terms of the foods you were/weren’t given as a child, and the activity levels encouraged by leaner families vs. heavier families, because I know that plays a role. Just trying to keep things simple.)

I have a few friends who walk around quite lean on a regular basis with no problems.  They eat well and exercise hard, but they feel really good and have a ton of energy when they are really lean. My friend Siouxsie (below) consistently rocks a lean physique and feels good while doing it.

 
Photo Credit: Siouxsie Gisselberg
 
I, on the other hand, am foggy-brained, cold, and lose my period when I am really lean.  The last six weeks before my first figure competition, I felt like each of my limbs weighed 300 pounds!  It was miserable.

 
No wonder I look angry here. I felt like garbage!

This is frustrating, but I have come to terms with it.  I am learning to be comfortable with the level of leanness where my health, performance, aesthetics, and lifestyle intersect.
 
3. Going beyond a healthy level of leanness for YOU is a stressor.
Above, I mentioned that when I’ve gotten very lean in the past, I experienced fatigue, heavy limbs, foggy-headedness, and I lost my period.  Those symptoms don’t generally happen when your body is healthy and functioning well, right?
 
In some instances, it’s just your body adjusting to its new ''set point,'' but not always.
Your ''set point'' is the body weight or body fat level to which your body has become accustomed.  It may or may not be a healthy weight or body fat level, but if you have been there for a while, your body often fights to keep you there. Once you have maintained a new ''set point'' for a reasonable amount of time (6-12 months), it becomes easier to stay there.
 
Just ask anyone who has lost or gained a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. Until they have maintained their new weight for a while, it’s a struggle to stay there. The body likes to maintain homeostasis because it’s safe. Hormone levels, blood pH, heart rate, blood pressure…all of these things are tightly controlled, and if they go too far in one direction or the other, we are in danger. Your body generally doesn’t like large weight fluctuations, either. If you try to get leaner than where your body is comfortable, it will fight back. We have a saying at my gym: ''If you don’t slow down, your body will slow you down.'' That’s what your body is doing if you are trying to get leaner and you start experiencing symptoms similar to what I listed.
 
4. It’s not normal, and it may not even be healthy to walk around shredded all the time.
My good friend Jen Comas Keck touched on this in her article, ''Looking Fit Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Being Healthy.'' If it were ''normal'' to walk around super lean all of the time, more people would be really lean. That’s kind of common sense, right? Not to beat a dead horse, but if you aren’t someone who runs lean naturally, trying to maintain extreme levels of leanness is not healthy.

It’s frustrating, because with the surge in social media over the last several years, we have become bombarded with images of our favorite fitness professionals (each of us looking our very best, no doubt), but even worse are the ''fitspo'' (short for "fitness inspiration") posters. These are images of extremely lean women with motivational sayings like, ''Winners never take a day off!'' or, ''Train insane or remain the same.''
 

I’m sorry, what?  Never take a day off?  Train insane?  Umm, how about the importance of recovery?  How about intelligent training? These images give us a false sense of normalcy, and cause many of us to feel dissatisfied with our bodies because we are chasing unhealthy and unrealistic goals.
 
5. How lean do you want to be, and will you sacrifice what it takes to get there? 
I realize that these are some very tricky questions I am posing. It’s hard to know how lean we want to get, because when we achieve that level of leanness, oftentimes it’s not enough. It’s the same with strength training. I thought that when I achieved a 135-pound bench, a 225-pound squat, and a 315-pound deadlift, I would be satisfied. Pfffft. Yeah, right. I’ve smoked each of those numbers and I am not even close to satisfied. Leanness can be the same way.
 
At one point, I thought this would satisfy me. I was dead wrong.

You don’t necessarily have to have a solid answer for these questions, but it is something to think about. As an example, there is a young woman who trains at my gym and she was a D1 college soccer player. She is naturally slim, athletic, and lean, but she had mentioned wanting to lose some fat in her lower body. Her diet is great, her training is great, and she takes good care of herself. All that being said, she does enjoy the occasional cupcake, beer, or glass of wine (or two).
 
We were discussing what it would take for her to get leaner, and after she told me about her diet and lifestyle, I saw no major red flags. I came to the conclusion that if she wanted to get leaner, she would need to get significantly stricter with her eating, or make other lifestyle sacrifices, so I asked if she was willing to do that. Was she willing to get a LOT more strict to possibly see some SMALL changes in her physique? Her answer was no. And THAT IS OK.
 
Know thyself, my friends. If you don’t want to make sacrifices (big or small) to change your body, then that is your prerogative. This woman has found the spot where her aesthetics, performance, health, and lifestyle intersect. Maybe none of them are exactly where she wants them to be, but she has found a solid balance. If you would prefer to be extremely lean, and it’s worth it to you to skip social events, get in bed by 9 p.m. every night, and train twice a day to get there, that’s fantastic. Do it. You are choosing aesthetics over lifestyle, and probably over performance and health, but if you want it, then do it.

Figure out what you want. Figure out what it takes to get there, and then decide if it makes sense for your life. Is being lean really worth it?  I don’t know…you tell me.

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Comments

DRAGONFLY631 6/5/2019
I’m going for healthy Report
KHALIA2 4/27/2019
Thanks for sharing! Report
KHALIA2 4/27/2019
I agree, we all are different. "Do what is best for you!" Report
MNABOY 1/22/2019
Interesting Report
Interesting article and even more interesting comments. To each his own, but as for me, the work I put into how I look is absolutely worth it. Report
Thanks for sharing your story. Report
fantastic article Report
Dear Molly and SparkPeople: Thank you for this intelligent and thoughtful article. It poses important questions about aesthetics vs. fitness vs. life balance. I particularly like your mission statement, Molly.

I was naturally thin for the first three decades of my life, but parenthood came with certain challenges, among them an altered metabolism. When I look in the mirror 2.5 decades later, I'm still surprised not to see my old "skinny" self. At the same time, while I want to regain a healthier weight, I think that part of being healthy is realizing that people naturally occupy a broad range of shapes and sizes, and that beauty comes (literally) in many forms. Functional fitness outweighs aesthetic considerations every time, especially since those aesthetic considerations are more dependent on the current fashion than on any notion of good health. I wish that the media were halfway grounded in their presentation of what makes a woman (or a man) look "good" or sexy. Report
KHALIA2
Great tips! Thanks! Report
KHALIA2
Great info! Makes a lot of sense to me. Report
Some of the rude comments here against this author make me sad. It's a good and important point that is well said. There is a RANGE of healthy weights. Within that range some people feel better being on the leaner end and others on the larger end of normal. Her point is that at the leaner end of her normal range she felt like garbage. That's totally legit. Let's not shame non-fat people thinking that anyone who isn't fat is find and doesn't deserve our understanding. Report
...agree with the article... there are people who are naturally lean!...a family member and I practically grew up in the same household, ate the same foods, with the same activity level...she, always thin...as adults (we are 6months apart)she gave birth to seven children and you would never know it...I, on the other hand worked out feverishly, daily to keep the weight off...so, it is important for me to exercise and eat healthy to be healthy...my body is predisposed (i am diabetic, she is not) to being unhealthy...yeah, i'm a hater!...lol... Report
I also think there is something very disingenuous about a young, lean individual posting selfies of her fit self, then crying "Oh poor me!" I think this is more about her vanity and fishing for compliments. Report
Well, I don't care. I USED to be really lean (131 lbs at 5'9") and I intend to be that way again! YES, it IS worth the sacrifice. (Oh, and I felt FANTASTIC at that weight; right now, I feel like a tired old blob.) Report
Too thin (not lean) is too thin. I have mid-large size frame. Down below 130 I look like Olive Oyl - knobby knees, elbows and collar bones so sharp they are lethal weapons. Report
I don't ever want to be that skinny! I'm 69 yeas old & I wouldn't look good & I
wouldn't be healthy looking like that! I hope everyone has a Super & Blessed
Saturday! Report
Looking for a physical trainer with this attitude~ Report
Nice thought-provoking article. Report
SAFIRE82
Great post. In the end it isn't about what we look like anyway, it is about what kind of LIFESTYLE WE WANT to lead, our health, happiness, and how we feel.
I have made it all about my lifestyle this time around instead of how fast I drop weight. It isn't all about looks for me anymore!

I was one even at my thinnest who could not seem to get a six pack to save my life! I naturally had a very smooth appearance and that is ok! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder anyway. ;) But most importantly what is on the inside, what kind of person you are deep down. Report
I think it's probably better to have a few spare pounds of fat on you... I mean, what if you get so sick you can't eat for a few days? What if there's an apocalypse? I think my goal is to be able to out run the hungry people without starving to death immediately myself. Report
KEELYME
It's a little hard to relate to an article about getting ripped when I'm still trying to drop another 16 lbs. For me, I can wear a size 10 or a size 8. Even when I weighed under 125 lbs in high school I couldn't fit a 6. By the time size 12 starts to fit, I'm approaching 170, and have so many other problems that its clearly bigger than I'm meant to be. But no matter the size, I'm always curvy. I don't think lean is anywhere to be found in my DNA. Report
Older people, in my experience, look older yet, when very thin. It might be different for people who were always thin and haven't lost a lot of weight later. But having a few extra pounds as a senior citizen looks better, in my opinion. I want to lose weight for health, but not to my lowest adult weight from my past. Report
I see what the blogger is trying to do, but I think she unknowingly ends up reinforcing equally problematic goals. And some of the photos that are meant to be sarcastic do the same thing. But I"m glad SOMEONE is questioning the media insanity. Report
First off you make it look good despite the angry face. I like the way it is broken down but I especially liked your final point. How bad do you want it and what sacrifices are you ready to make? Certain factors can't be changed but this one can and we have to make that decision on whether it is worth it. Report
I liked some aspects of this article, but really disliked others. I don't think it's ever helpful or realistic to claim that some people are "naturally" lean. "naturally" able to maintain their weight, or "naturally" more muscular than others.

Sure - genetics are different for all of us. But research is showing that the actual range of those differences is actually pretty narrow. What makes those "naturally" lean/muscular people different? A small part may be genetics. Or it may not. But what we can be sure of is that their daily choices around fitness and eating make a big difference.

Putting so much emphasis on people who are "naturally" lean/muscular is misleading. I just don't expect to see that kind of statement on Sparkpeople. Report
I can't say I got "really really" lean but at 5'8" I ended up going down to 137-139. It wasn't that hard to maintain, but I thought I looked too bony and at 65 that wasn't a good look. I am now between 141 - 144 and feel I look better. I am doing strength training more so that has helped with muscle definition and my clothes all fit the same. Report
The mental health of some people who need to beat their bodies into submission has often been overlooked. The word "shredded" already tells a story.....something is going on inside the brain of someone fixated on the look of their body. Doing that for years and years is tiresome, and something has got to give, sooner or later. Another addiction is really what it is. Report
KRISCOREEVES
Loved this article - very interesting! Report
Thanks for this. The balance was really great, and I think the comments about genetics are spot on.

I run 5-10 miles a week, and do a half hour of yoga or other resistance exercise 2-3 times a week. Not a particularly intense regime, and I do eat pizza, Indian food etc at least once a week. I am however probably naturally lean, and been made to feel unwelcome at one yoga class I no longer attend and get raised eyebrows and negative comments in response to my (fairly relaxed) goal of getting to running 10k over the next couple of months.

I like feeling fit, powerful and healthy and I hate that other people automatically assume that I do it for looks rather than for feeling good; it's such a negative way to be! Report
I know what my acceptable level of sacrifice is and I can tell you, it won't get me to that point but that's OK. I am doing well with a moderate workout routine, healthful dietary changes and progressive weight loss. I will ultimately get to the point where I'm in "normal" sizes, my weight and fitness levels no longer pose a health hazard, and I can enjoy a vibrant and active life. I don't need or want to be a fitness model (nor will I!) so my goal is just to be healthy and normal. That's just me though, and if there's one thing I've definitely learned it's NOT to judge. Report
Yes, it takes a huge amount of effort to achieve excellence. If it were easy, fun or fast, everyone would be at that level, who are we kidding? There's no reason to throw the process under the bus - to each his own! Report
I just spent some significant time on her site, she hits her points and backs them up. Well done Molly, proving even us guys can get it though our thick heads once in a while. Report
Wow! A SP blog I really liked! Great advice. Please post more like this! Report
I totally love this article. To hear such kind & compassionate words towards people, mainly women, from a trainer is a nice change!!! You can tell Molly cares for women and how they view themselves...not just saying "you need to stop eating crap and workout every day at top speed". Sooo unrealistic. More people thinking like this will make more people be HAPPY with who THEY are. Report
This article is very thought provoking. I had a goal number in mind but have since changed it to a much more reasonable goal. This is in part to watching a co-worker(my inspiration) get very lean (she is my age - 50) and she looks like she aged 10 years. She works out everyday and eats really boring food. No Thank you! To a foodie like me that just isnt going to happen! I just want to be fit and healthy. Report
I liked this article, its a nice reminder to put things in perspective. Report
SUCH an important conversation for us to be having - thank you! Report
Thanks very much for this. It's exactly where I am right now. I'm trying to decide if I need to push for the last 5 lbs. toward the goal I set 2 years ago when I started this journey, or if listening to my body how it is today is REALLY OK and possibly changing that "all important" goal #.

I was thinking this morning if I would be really satisfied with 5 more lbs. or if I would push for more once I lost those. Focusing on that goal number has made it hard to feel proud of me cuz "I'm not there yet". Sad yes.

After reading this, I think I might have the courage to change my goal and tell myself "You are good enough right now!"

Thanks for the reality check!! Report
*A picture is worth a thousand words.* Six of the seven photos associated with this article illustrate "really-lean", and the last is bust-up. From a visual standpoint, this article says "Is it worth it? Here are a bunch of pics of a shredded trainer!" How about six more photos of you from what you consider a more realistic viewpoint? Report
CRDUFFIELD
This is a much-needed perspective as we're bombarded with these fitness ideals all over social media, tv, etc.

I'm 5'8" and when I started running 10-12 miles per week and weight lifting, I saw that I could get crazy lean, so I started eating super clean too. Bottom line, I got below 110 lbs and even though I was healthy and training properly, I looked scary thin and people were concerned. I'm back up to 115 and trying to gain a few pounds so we can get pregnant. Even though I could be leaner, I've learned I'm happier not stressing over a slice of pizza on Saturday nights, skipping a gym session to teach a Bible study, etc. I could be leaner, but I'd rather be balanced! Report
I don't know. I want to look lean and fit, for the effort I put in at the gym and my level of fitness. I don't necessarily need to be "cut". I lost a lot of weight and unfortunately, the saggy skin didn't go away and it didn't tighten up. I've started working on the "how much am I willing to sacrifice via food intake" again.... Report
I will say that it is worth it and important to me to get down to the best weight for my age, height and body type. That may not look "lean" to some people, but I remember feeling really good when was around 145 lbs and feeling awkward when I got down to 135 lbs. That was likely because I had never been that weight, hadn't seen myself much and had always walked around with more weight, so even looking at myself and moving around on less weight felt awkward. All the fitness calculators keep telling me that the healthiest weight and BMI will put me around 125 lbs. Sorry, not going there. I don't think my body is made for that and I won't stress about it. If I can get down to about 140 lbs (I'm about 194 now), I think that will be a great compromise. We'll see what happens, but I also want to give myself time at certain weights to allow my body to fully adjust so that I don't stress myself. It could be that I'd feel fantastic at 125 lbs, but I'd just like to focus on 140 first to get back to my comfort zone. Then we'll see how I feel about going further from there... Report
Perfectly written and yes, i had to sit down with myself ask why I am losing weight. The answer is: health and vitality. I can never be thick and curvy and I don't want six pack abs. I want the ability to run for miles and look normal. Report
Perfectly written and yes, i had to sit down with myself ask why I am losing weight. The answer is: health and vitality. I can never be thick and curvy and I don't want six pack abs. I want the ability to run for miles and look normal. Report
I'm not willing to sacrifice enough to weigh a BMI of 18.5. However, I was not happy at BMI 25 even though my doctor was. After 5 decades of being obese, I love weighing what I wanted to weigh in junior high, around 126, a BMI of 20.5. Report
Great post, thank you for sharing. Very interesting :) Report
SHAWNJONES69
This article was great. For some reason I used to think that just because someone was thin or lean, that they were automatically healthy. I'm not where I want to be in terms of weight and body tone, but I know I'm not the most unhealthy person just because I have a few extra pounds. I do workout more now, so I will be more comfortable in my skin as time goes on. Report
PAMPEEKEMD
I am frustrated by the fitspo images as well and it's a real struggle to find pictures of people of either normal or overweight who are working out to use in social media. Strength, energy and health are the ultimate goals of what we eat and how [much] we exercise. I'm glad that you discuss this.

I would like to add one caveat to your very good post: really lean fits a minority of the genetic jackpot. Really lean becomes harder and harder to maintain as you grow older. Really lean changes when a woman has children. Even the really lean now might have to struggle in not-that-distant future.

I'm not just talking about gaining some weight because of not being able to work out a couple of hours a day. A really lean woman will find that age, pregnancy, hormones can shift her body composition around without gaining much weight at all.

I want my patients and readers to be comfortable with a fit, energetic and healthy body irregardless of washboard abs or thighs that don't touch. I also want my very overweight and obese patients and readers not to dream about the bodies in the fit inspiration posters. They will earn terrific, beautiful bodies with their lifestyle changes -- they may even kick some very lean women's butts in a race or lifting weights. But these images are poisonous to everyone at a certain point in their lives. Report
''If you want longer, leaner muscles, get different parents.''

True. The following is also true -
''If you want longer, leaner muscles, get younger.''

Hit age 40 or so (and older) and it's not likely that you will be ... there. But you can look and feel better. I think that's worth striving for. Report
This article and "Want the Body of a Fitness Model? Find Out What It Really Takes" (linked under related entries) by Coach Nicole have been indispensable in exploring the value of leanness, what it takes to get there, and ultimately, is it worth it? The disconnect between a healthy lifestyle and what it would take to get the body of a fitness model is huge! Thanks for injecting some reality into the pursuit of the perfect body! Report