Can the body change shape when an individual loses weight? This is what Thomas Wadden, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Health and Behavior at Syracuse University, wanted to find out when he kept track of the body measurements of overweight women as they lost weight. He discovered that it depends on whether you are an apple or a pear.
A “pear-shaped” body is one in which the lower portion (hips, buttocks, and thighs) stores more fat than the upper body. It is a common figure type among women. “Apple-shaped” bodies are larger on top, smaller below. While there are women who are apple-shaped, it is more commonly found among men. Apples are more prone to heart disease, diabetes, etc. but have an easier time losing fat from their upper bodies. Pears are not as prone to those diseases but have a harder time removing fat from their lower portion.
Scientists believe the reason why hip and thigh fat is so stubborn has something to do with the reproductive process. Estrogen multiplies fat-storing enzymes and directs fat to be stored in the hips, buttocks, and thighs. Fat cells in that area contain more alpha or fat storing receptors. It seems like Mother Nature has made sure that a woman has an abundant storage of fat to stay fertile, carry a pregnancy to term, and breastfeed even in times when food is scarce.
Large pears to small pears.
The apples in Wadden’s study lost fat mostly in the chest and abdomen so they looked different after losing weight. The pears, meanwhile, lost fat in both their upper and lower body so they maintained their basic shape even when they became smaller.
Wadden observed that “weight loss is often not as noticeable in pear-shaped women because their hips and thighs still look heavy compared to their waists and chests”. He said the pear-shaped women entered his study as large pears and they left as small pears.
From my own personal experience (I am pear-shaped due to my Spanish heritage) and the experiences of many of my pear-shaped clients, I can attest to this peculiar fat loss pattern. If you are pear-shaped and you try to lose weight simply by dieting or by dieting and aerobic exercise alone, your hips do become somewhat smaller but so does your upper body, including your face. You end up becoming a smaller haggard-looking pear.
The answer to reshaping a pear-shaped body Wadden explains is weight training (also called strength or resistance training). Wadden concluded from his experiment that “the only way a pear-shaped person can change body shape is to weight train and build the upper body so the lower body looks smaller”.
Dr. Miriam Nelson, Tufts University researcher and author of the book “Strong Women Stay Slim”, also agrees that “strength training is the most effective way to reshape your body”.
The art of illusion.
The reason shoulder pads used to be so popular was because they made the waist and hips look smaller in comparison. It fooled the eye of the beholder. By developing larger muscles in the shoulders, chest, arms, and upper back, you can also create an illusion that the lower body isn’t as wide and as big as it really is. Bodybuilders use this trick to give them a V-shaped body. The correct weight training technique (heavier weights for the upper body and lighter weights for the lower body) can transform a pear-shaped body into something more similar to an “hour-glass”.
I was recently in Bacolod for a fitness seminar and many of the participants there whom I hadn’t seen in six years commented that my waist and hips got smaller. Actually, my waist and hips have hardly changed in measurement for the last ten years. The difference is that in the last year or so, I have worked religiously in building my upper body to balance out what Nature has so generously given me in the lower body.
Tips for reshaping a pear-shaped body.
- A pear-shaped woman still needs to do cardiovascular or aerobic exercise to reduce body fat. Build up your stamina so that you can do vigorous aerobic workouts (running, cardio gym machines, aerobic classes, cycling, dancing, etc.) three to six times a week.
- Develop sensible eating habits. There is no way you can reduce hip and thigh fat if your daily diet consists of junk food, fast food, creamy or oily food, cakes and pastries, etc. Eat mostly natural high-fiber food like fruits, vegetables, legumes (mongo, for example), whole grains and if you eat animal protein and dairy products, make sure they are from lean low-fat sources. Eat the sweets and junk food only occasionally and in moderation.
- Build muscle mass in the upper body by lifting weights heavy enough to fatigue you in eight to twelve repetitions.
- Tone and tighten the muscles in your lower body without building mass by lifting “light” weights for fifteen to twenty repetitions. Do not be afraid to lift weights for your lower body - just don’t lift heavy. I have seen women who were so scared to build bulk in their legs that they would only use one-pound ankle weights. You will not get anywhere with those “baby” weights. I cannot give an absolute number like “never use ankle weights beyond six pounds per leg” because women come in different sizes and heights. You will know the weight is light because you can comfortably lift it fifteen to twenty times. By the last couple of repetitions, it should “cost” you a little something in terms of effort. You are wasting your time if you can lift your legs fifty times without even batting an eyelash.
- Be patient. Building muscle mass in the upper body is not as easy as it sounds. You have to learn the right way to lift weights and build up your strength gradually. It takes a while to get strong enough to lift the weight required for your muscles to start getting bigger. The fat on your hips, thighs, and buttocks will not surrender very easily either.
- Be realistic. Your body can change shape but it can only change so far. Be happy with what you can change. Don’t get depressed over what you cannot change. For example, you cannot change the width of your hips if you have already trimmed the fat practically down to the bone. The thighs and buttocks will also always be a little fleshier than you would probably prefer.
I have to mention this because it invariably pops up somewhere in the conversation when I consult with someone about changing her pear-shaped figure. I, personally, believe that liposuction should only be the “icing on the cake”. I don’t believe in using liposuction as the first option in attacking lower body fat because to maintain that surgically enhanced figure you need good exercise and eating habits. The people who don’t exercise and just do “lipo” do not have those habits well established in their daily life. Often times, the fat returns – maybe not in the place that was originally operated on but in other, sometimes strange, places like the pubic area or the neck. Dr. Robert Eckel of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity reported that half the liposuction patients he studied gained their weight back within a year. The best lipo results I have seen have been on people who worked the hard way to reduce body fat and build lean muscle and then had liposuction to remove small pockets of resistant fat.
Weight training works for other body shapes too.
The same weight training principles can apply to other body shapes as well. Developing the upper body (especially the shoulders and “lats” or “wings” at the side of the back) works for people who have waistlines as straight as rulers – remember the body builder’s trick? People who have skinny legs and small flat buttocks can weight train to build bulk in the lower body to develop a more symmetrical figure.