Episode 11: Bodies Come in All Shapes and Sizes

In Episode 11: Bodies Come in All Shapes and Sizes, Geof and Todd discuss how humans come in all shapes and sizes, how everyone responds so differently to the same exact diet and exercise routine, why it is so important to find exercises you like and foods you enjoy, that your diet and exercise preferences match your goals, and why you should only compare yourself to yourself.

In Episode 08: Your Body Type Helps Find Your Activity, when talking about differences in body types we gave the example of Shaquille O’Neal and Simone Biles as being on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of body size (7’1”, 324 pounds versus 4’8”, 104 pounds).  Although we don’t know Shaquille’s and Simone’s birth weights, chances are they were born into this world at a relatively similar size, yet were likely drastically different in size as infants, toddlers, adolescents, and young adults.

Shaquille didn’t eat certain foods and perform certain exercises to become as big as he is and Simone didn’t eat certain foods and perform certain exercises to become as small as she is (provided she consumed enough calories to prevent stunting her growth due to her extreme levels of activity).  The point is, Shaq and Simone are drastically different sizes not because of their diet, not because of their exercise, but because of their genes.

Human beings are genetically very similar and yet very different at the same time.  While we all share 99% of the same genetic material, the genes that are different among individuals, the number of copies of those particular genes (we have more than one copy of each gene), and how strongly or weakly those genes are expressed (turned “on” or turned “off”) matters a great deal for a great number of physical, emotional, and behavioral traits among others.

So what we are trying to say is that while we are all the same, we are also all incredibly different.  There is a fine line that needs to be walked between using our uniqueness as an excuse and on the other hand objectively realizing that some things (i.e. losing weight or building muscle) might take us a little more work than other people.

I wrote an article before that I like to reference, Anything Fitness Nut Does will Work for Him/Her but Will It Work for You? where I highlight exercise research into what we call “responders” and “non-responders”.  When you graph the response of individual people to exercise (each person’s response is one bar), let’s say their improvement in aerobic capacity in response to cardiovascular training, you will see what looks like a hillside.  At the bottom of the hill on the left hand side, some people barely respond at all, as you start to climb the hill (graph reading left to right), some people respond a little, some people respond a moderate amount, and some people respond like crazy (the top of the hill)!  The same effect is true in weight training.  Some people will look at a weight and build muscle whereas other people will work their asses off and will barely gain any muscle at all. 

The people that seem to respond very little have been labeled “non-responders” by the exercise scientists who study them.  But something that has never made sense to me is that the response to exercise is a biological, evolutionarily conserved trait important to our (past) survival.  There seems like no way in hell that some people can’t respond to exercise training.  Well, lucky for me, these same scientists performed another experiment where they ran the same set of aerobic training experiments and once again identified the “non-responders”.  Only this time, they had the non-responders perform an extra dose of exercise.  Instead of exercising for 60 minutes/day, they had them exercise for 90-120 minutes/day.  And guess what happened?  Their bodies responded to exercise!!  Not like the crazy responders, more like the moderate responders.  But still.

The point of the article was to show that while some people will respond to 60 minutes of exercise, others will take more work and a larger dose of exercise to respond/adapt.  The same is true of weight gain and weight loss.  Some people will easily gain weight while others can seem to eat whatever they want and not gain any weight.  In a classic study back in the early 1990’s, Dr. Claude Bouchard took sets of twins and overfed them for 100 days.  Each twin gained approximately the same amount as the other twin, which shouldn’t be all that unexpected.  However, the crazy findings were that while some twins gained 13 pounds over the course of 100 days, some gained nearly 30 pounds!

I mentioned to Geof in our podcast that I have wanted to write on the fact that bodies come in all shapes and sizes for a long time.  I’ve wanted to do so partially because I felt like it has been my elephant in the room.  Weight loss and weight gain is controlled by energy balance (calories in/calories out).  Energy balance is what matters, the rest is just details (in my opinion) but this type of philosophy/stance can seem a bit oversimplistic and cold for that matter. 

I want to acknowledge the fact that some people are big because of their genes and some people are big because of their lifestyle.  It is nearly impossible to identify which people are big because of their genes and which people are big because of their lifestyles (outside of living with them and monitoring their every move).  But if you don’t abide by the principles of energy balance, then you are left floundering in the wind and prone to all sorts of diet and exercise fads.

And diet and exercise fads do not work and will never work.  It sometimes sucks to hear it but I think we need to put in the work and live with the results.  If we don’t like the results, we may need to redouble our efforts to see the results we want to see.

There is a myth out there that if we find the “right” diet or exercise routine for us that it will finally work.  But I say myth because although each of our bodies is different and unique, diet and exercise works, it may just take a larger amount for you than for others.  This is another reason why Geof and I are so adamant that you find something you like to do and find foods that you like to eat that help you achieve your goals.  If you don’t like running you’re not going to do more of it to achieve your goals even if you know that running is “the best” exercise to lose weight.  If you hate salads, you’re not going to eat more salads to achieve your goals.

But with all that being said, you need to make sure that the type of exercise (or diet) that you like feeds your goals.  For example, doing more yoga isn’t going to increase your aerobic endurance any more than focusing on protein is going to help you lose weight.  To that end, we all need to find a professional that we can trust to make sure that our exercise/nutrition likes match our goals.  And lastly, you can only compare you to you.  If you compare yourself to others, you’ll never achieve what you want to achieve because it will never be good enough.  There are too many people out there that have better genes for losing weight or building muscle.  That doesn’t mean that you don’t have genes that help you be much better at 10 other things than they are.  They just happen to have the genes for weight loss or building muscle. 

So in the end, find exercises you like to perform, find foods you like to eat, find a professional that can make sure that these are the foods and exercises that will help you meet your goals, if you’re not seeing the results you are looking for, redouble your efforts, stay the course, be patient, and see what happens.  You may have to change your expectations and your goals.  You can only do so much. If you do all these things you’re doing the best that you can possibly do.  And that’s all you can ask of yourself and all that anyone can ask of you.

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