Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Q & A: I'm not overweight but my stomach sticks out - what can I do about it?

What factors affect my body shape?

Your shape is largely governed by your parent's genes - you take bits from both parents to make up your own unique self - but exactly how you will end up is of course a bit of a lottery! For example, if you have a father who is tall and thin and a mother who is short and plump your genetic shape could be short and thin, or tall and plump, as well as tall and thin or short and plump. Or you could end up neither short nor tall, and neither thin nor plump, because if you put short and tall together, you get medium, and so on. If you're lucky you could take all the 'best bits' from each parent and end up completely gorgeous even though neither of them is particularly handsome. That's why siblings can look so different from one another - apart from identical twins, you each put your parent's genes into a different pattern. However, as you probably know, mostly children from the same family do have many physical similarities and mostly children to end up bearing strong characteristics from one or other parent. So - if you don't like what you've got, blame them!

Other factors do come into the equation, though. Obviously, your sex has a large bearing upon your shape, because each sex is genetically programmed to have a predisposition to its own blueprint of muscle, bone, fat and so on.

Males tend to have broader shoulders, wider necks, narrower hips and more muscled arms and legs, and tend to be taller with a lower percentage of body fat. Females tend to have higher body fat, deposited around the breasts, hips, bottom and thighs, with a lower percentage of muscle, and tend to be shorter. Male and female hormones decide these sexual differences but, again, everyone has both male and female hormones in them and depending upon the proportion of each that you have, your shape can be more or less mannish, more or less feminine.

Your shape can also be affected by your nutritional status in early life and also to quite a reasonable extent by what and how much activity you do and have done in the past. For example - look how different are the figures of a body builder, a gymnast, a marathon runner and a rugby player. Exercise has a quite tremendous power to help shape your body. Though of course people tend to choose the sport that fits in best with their original body blueprint - i.e., if you are tall, broad and powerful you are more likely to become a rugby player than a gymnast.

Your weight is less of a factor in defining your body shape than you may think, though being fat will accentuate shape. For example, a fat pear-shaped woman will look more pear-shaped than a thin pear-shaped woman.

However much I diet and exercise, I seem to remain 'soft' with no muscle definition - any cure?

You may be a natural endomorph type; these do have a softer, more rounded look than other body types with a higher proportion of body fat to muscle. Most people also become 'softer' with age (some would call it flabby!) and you have to work harder as you get older to maintain a well-toned appearance and/or to increase your muscle mass.

Also you may be doing the wrong type of exercise - you need to work about 4 times a week with weights (or daily using different major muscle groups on alternate days), gradually increasing the weights used and the reps, to see much difference - and you can't hurry it.

erhaps you haven't been working out for long enough - give it a year (take a 'before' photo of yourself so you have something visual to compare with - you will undoubtedly get a pleasant surprise if you've been working out with dedication. Another good piece of news is that if you do manage to increase your muscle mass, this will increase your metabolic rate and you should also find slimming and/or weight maintenance easier. Obviously, if you are still carrying much too much subcutaneous (under skin) and abdominal body fat you aren't going to be able to see the muscles even if they are there.

What about spot reduction - can I choose where I lose fat via exercise?

Not really. It has been said that you can lose fat in specific places by working the muscles over that area (I suppose the idea being that the hard-worked muscle somehow burns extra fat in that place, or perhaps 'melts' it). However research shows that this isn't the case. A study (reported in the excellent book Exercise Physiology by US professors McArdle, Katch and Katch) measured the subcutaneous fat in either arm of tennis players and it was found that the fat underneath the playing arm (which was more muscular than the non-playing arm for obvious reasons) was exactly the same in quantity as the fat under the non-playing arm.

Body fat can only really be reduced by creating an energy deficit and using up stored fat this way - but you can't dictate where you want this fat to go from.

Research shows that fat tends to go from the face, bust and abdomen first - and indeed, that the intra-abdominal adipose tissue is easier to mobilise than that elsewhere in the body, particularly of the hips and thighs. Hence if you have a fat middle it may appear that you are 'spot reducing' because on a diet, this area will show the most marked changes initially, but in reality it isn't the case.

However toning exercises can improve your appearance in specific areas by bulking, streamlining or flattening the area where the muscle is worked - giving you a better shape. This achieves a similar effect to the 'spot reducing' idea and may be where the original misconception came from.

I'm not overweight but my stomach sticks out - what can I do about it?

You need to look for the likely cause. It could be that you suffer from abdominal bloating, which could possibly be fluid retention. This is most likely if your stomach grows large before a period, if you are female, or if you tend to have fluid retained elsewhere, e.g. on the ankles or round the eyes. If you have no signs of this, it could be bloating through wind.

A very high fibre diet, a poor balance of bacteria in the gut, stress, or other factors could cause this - and one main symptom will be that you do pass a lot of wind. A course of prebiotics (fructo-oligo-saccharides) and probiotics (acidophillus) should help this - any good health food shop will sell these. It may also be possible to pinpoint a food or foods that may be causing the wind - possible culprits may be pulses, dried fruits, brassicas, yeasty foods, wheat, spices, coffee or alcohol (however none of these foods may cause you problems and others may be the cause). In this case, eliminating the culprit/s would be one solution (however strict elimination diets are only to be undertaken with professional guidance - see your doctor for referral).

One other dietary cause could be constipation in which case the pre and probiotics will also help, as will a diet high in citrus fruits and water. (Sadly some high fibre foods, such as pulses, dried fruits and brassicas will prevent constipation but can make wind worse, so you have to be cautious here if you have both problems.)

Having ruled out all these causes, you are left with a) lack of abdominal muscle tone or b) poor posture - or a combination of both - as the likely causes. The majority of adults suffer from one or both problems to some extent.

However if you have an apple shape - many apple-shaped people do have thin arms and legs and therefore don't consider themselves overweight - you should measure your waist and check to see if you are 'at risk' from a large middle. In this case you may need to combine diet and exercise to gain a better shape and reduce your health risks.

I'm a flat-chested female - what foods or exercise will give me a bigger bust without putting weight on the rest of my body?

The bad news first - you can't really eat to put weight on your bust and nowhere else, just as you can't cut down on food and hope to lose weight just off one area.

If you gained weight all over, you would put weight on your bust but even then there is no telling whether it would be a little or a lot - if you're pear-shaped it is more likely to end up on your hips and thighs.

However there is still plenty you can do. You can improve your posture, through exercise such as yoga, Pilates or the Alexander Technique which will make your bust seem bigger and give you a better outline. You can also do chest exercises such as push ups and using a pec dec at the gym. These strengthen the pectoral muscles which lie beneath the breasts and will also help 'uplift' them. A good well-designed, uplifting and cleavage-enhancing bra will complete the illusion.

You may also find that pregnancy and motherhood increase the size of your bust (however I have to say that with some women the bust size actually decreases, though this IS less common). And as you get older, the breasts often naturally increase in size.

Are there any instant ways of changing my shape?

The best 'instant' way is by standing correctly - poor posture has a lot to answer for in terms of round shoulders, double chins, fat bellies, flat bottoms and knock knees (for example)!

I suppose you could change some facets of your shape (e.g. fat stomach, big thighs) through the operation liposuction - a sometimes painful process. It's not exactly instant but it does involve little effort on your part (apart from the work involved in earning the money to pay for it). And you could try a salon-wrap for a quick but short-lived minor change in your body measurements for a special occasion.

However, in general, most 'instant' or 'miraculous' cures for your body shape aren't worth wasting your money on.

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