Can You Change Your Body's Shape?

By Geralyn Coopersmith, MA, CSCS. Geralyn is an exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning specialist. She is the author of Fit + Female: The Perfect Fitness & Nutrition Game Plan for Your Unique Body Type (Wiley) and the National Director of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute.

Can You Change Your Body's Shape?

The grass always seems greener. Far too often, we want the exact opposite of what Mother Nature gave us. This is especially true when it comes to women and their satisfaction (or lack thereof) with their own body shape. Those of us who have skinnier legs and smaller backsides often want more curves. Conversely, the curvaceous among us typically long for more waif-like appearance. 

All of which begs the question: Is it possible to completely change your shape?” The short answer is “no,” not completely. But, fortunately, you can radically improve both your health and your appearance with the right exercise routine in combination with proper nutrition. 

Apple-shaped women tend to hold excess body fat in their waists, arms and breasts with very little body fat stored in their lower bodies. Pear-shaped women, on the other hand, tend to carry extra pounds in their lower bodies, rather than gaining in the waist or upper body. 

Not only do both body types look significantly different, each has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages. For one thing, apple-shaped women typically have an easier time losing weight than their pear-shaped sisters. This is because fat stored in the midsection is more metabolically active.

What to Do if You’re an Apple

The biggest challenge of having an apple shape is that fat stored in the midsection is easily released into the blood stream where it can cause a whole host of health problems. 

The release of this visceral fat into the body is associated with higher triglycerides, lower HDL (“good” cholesterol), greater insensitivity to one’s own insulin, and higher blood pressure, to name just a few. These are often precursors for life-threatening issues such as heart attack, diabetes and stroke.

Cardiovascular training is especially important for the apple body shape, because it can help improve heart health while burning off toxic body fat. Any rhythmic, repetitive, low-impact activity that gets an Apple moving her whole body and breaking a sweat for at least 20 minutes can be beneficial. However, interval training is particularly effective for this body type. 

Interval training involves alternating periods of moderate intensity with high intensity. This can be done with many activities including: swimming, walking, biking, cross country skiing, and stair-stepping. One example of this would be: walking at a brisk pace for 3-4 minutes, then switching to a very fast pace for 30 seconds to a minute, and continuing this process for the entire duration of a 30-minute workout.  Studies show that interspersing higher and moderate level intensities increases fat metabolism both during and after the workout, making it easier to burn more calories in less time.  

Apples should also avoid spot-reducing workouts, such as repetitive sit-ups and crunches. These types of exercises do nothing to burn fat off the abdomen, don’t improve cardiovascular health, and they can even lead to chronic lower-back problems.

What to Do if You’re a Pear

On the other side of the shape spectrum, Pears are lucky in that they are predisposed to fewer health problems from having excess body fat than their apple-shaped counterparts. Unfortunately, they are more likely to have body image issues associated with their shape. This is especially true when women strive to look like models and celebrities who often have very thin apple-type bodies with extremely slender legs.  

If pear-shaped women are trying to achieve that type of look through diet and exercise, they will likely be very disappointed. Pears can expect to become much more fit and toned, but should not expect to have a total change in shape. This is mostly because body fat stored in the thighs, legs and buttocks is less metabolically active and therefore harder to burn off. 

Resistance training is one of the best ways for Pears to re-sculpt their shapes while slimming down. Ironically, women with pear shapes often avoid training with weights out of fear that they will become “big and bulky.” Fortunately, women don’t need to be concerned with becoming too “built up” from resistance training, because they lack the high testosterone levels (found in men) which are necessary to build large muscles. In fact, when women resistance train, they can transform their bodies into lean, fat-burning machines by increasing sexy muscle tone and reducing body fat.

Women with more muscle relative to body fat have an easier time losing weight – and keeping it off. Moreover, better muscle tone is essential to reduce the appearance of cellulite, a common complaint of pear-shaped women. Cellulite is just another word for body fat stored directly under the skin of the thighs, butt and hips. The only difference is because of the shape of the fat storage chambers in that part of the body, cellulite can have a cottage-cheesy or orange-peel-like appearance, especially if it rests on top of loose under-developed muscles. When body fat lies above well-defined muscles it lays flatter and looks much smoother. 

A great way for pears to get in top shape is to do resistance training and get a “cardio” workout at the same time by using something called “complexes.” Complexes are a type of circuit training consisting of body sculpting moves (such as squats, lunges, push-ups and single arm rows) done back to back in a circuit format. The idea is to do one exercise for 12-20 repetitions and then go right into the next exercise with as little rest as possible. This type of workout keeps the heart rate up, revving metabolism, while simultaneously shaping and defining lean, beautiful muscles.

And while exercise will dramatically change the look of a Pear’s body, women with hourglass curves shouldn’t ever expect to ever have “skinny” legs. Like Apples, Pears will transform into fit and more athletic versions of themselves, but will never completely lose their basic shape. 

Another benefit of resistance training is that the addition of upper body exercises (particularly those for the upper back) will help bring balance to their frame making their upper and lower body look more proportionate to one another.  

The one time that Pears can expect a change in shape is after menopause when estrogen levels (responsible for the storage of fat in the lower extremities) will decrease. At this stage of life, many women do notice a tendency to store more body fat in the middle and less below the waist. 

Like Apples, Pears should keep in mind that there is no such thing as spot reduction. Endless leg lifts, for example, won’t burn off “saddle bags.” Burning sensations felt during exercise are the result of localized muscle fatigue, not localized fat burning.

While no exercise routine (or diet plan) can change the fundamentals of what nature intended, following these basic strategies can help women become the most fit and fabulous versions of their apple- or pear-shaped selves. Only when women can accept and embrace what they are (and not waste time and energy on what they think they should be) can they begin the journey of discovering their own unique version of health and beauty.    

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