Do we all have to be super lean and ripped?
Last week, my client and I were talking about our trainings and her fitness goals and evaluating how our work together has gone. She has been training with me well over a year. During that time, her energy levels have improved a lot, she has seen noticeable muscle definition and her clothes are fitting better. All the amazing benefits that you can see when you work out consistently (in her case, 2x a week, 45 minutes each time) and eat a reasonable diet.
By reasonable diet, I mean eating mostly whole foods and in amounts that are needed for your body. Not over eating, not under eating; not restricting, not stuffing. Allowing yourself to eat things you want, in moderation, and making food choices that make you feel great.
She told me that feeling good and fitting in her clothes are her main goals. She said that she likes the added muscle definition too and she wouldn't like to lose that. I totally understand and I think that the way she sees her training and fitness in general is very healthy.
8% Body Fat – Sounds Fantastic?
Then she showed me a picture of her aunt, taken in 1988.
This woman was shredded.
Not a tiniest piece of visible body fat, all just lean muscle. Her body fat percentage was 8%.
At the time when this picture was taken, she had in fact three kids, which is again interesting and shows again how different we all are. I would say that most women probably experience some sort of menstrual cycle disturbances if their body fat percentage is that low. I don't know if and what kind of overtraining symptoms she experienced, but apparently, she was able to conceive three kids 4-8 years before this picture was taken. But it's also possible that her body composition was very different when her kids were conceived.
But anyway, there she was, mother of three kids, super ripped, with only 8% fat on her body.
According to my client, here's what her aunt's day life looked like: As a stay-at-home mom, she dropped her kids off to school in the morning and then went to work out in the gym, after which she would go and pick up her kids again.
Her diet consisted of literally three items: Broccoli, boiled chicken breast and brown rice.
As lean as she looked and as much as our society loves these kind of super ripped bodies, I don't think pursuing this lifestyle and body is not what most of us should desire.
The Reality: Most Of Us Can't Live Like This
I' not saying that people who do bikini competitions or work out extremely hard for another reason, are doing something wrong. They can do whatever makes them happy! We all can do whatever makes us happy (as long as it doesn't hurt anyone, obviously).
The problem though is that our society praises those extremely lean bodies, so that way too many women think that they have to look this way too and that they're lazy or less good people if they don't.
However, for most women, pushing our bodies to extremes like that is potentially unhealthy, it doesn't work with our lifestyle, and is absolutely unnecessary.
Why It's Potentially Unhealhty
Female bodies, in general, need significantly more body fat than mens.
First off, body fat is needed for functioning menstrual cycle, which, as dr Lara Briden puts it, is our monthly report card.
Many women start losing their hair as the result of too much stress — which mostly comes from eating too few calories and too little variety (like in this woman's experience, rice, broccoli and boiled chicken breast).
Over stressing our bodies with extreme long exercise and low calorie diet means that we don't have energy, libido, we get sugar cravings all the time, we're cold… These are very common signs that go hand in hand with losing our periods.
The goal of our diet should be making us feel better. If it doesn't and the only difference we see is weight loss or fat loss but we feel like a piece of crap on it, then it's not worth it.
Let's put our health and wellbeing first, everything else can come after that.
Why It Doesn't Work With Our Lifestyle
8% body fat is where many elite athletes are. We all want to look like athletes, but we live our lives way differently than they do.
Working out is athlete's job. They train, sleep, rest and recover, train… Everything starts over again. Many professional athletes have teams who take care of their nutrition and help them recover, like chiropractors and massage therapists. Athlete's job is literally go and train. And this work is hard.
Most women's lives don't look like that. We have full time jobs, many of us have even more than one job. Many women have kids and houses to take care of. We cook meals for ourselves and our families. Yes, most people have spouses but there are plenty of single moms as well.
Our responsibilities are different from athlete's. Trying to train the way athletes do simply doesn't work with our lifestyle.
That doesn't mean that we can't take care of ourselves. Of course we can! Working out doesn't have to take more than 30 minutes a day. Our meals can be simple, there's no need to come up with culinary masterpieces every day. We can be perfectly healthy, all we need is just find balance.
Why It's Not Necessary
Being healthy is necessary. Walking around with less than ten percent body fat isn't.
Being extremely lean does't give us anything else than just the looks. I understand that this is very important for some people, but that's just all it is — the looks. It doesn't make us healthier or happier. And like I said before, for many women, it can be even unhealthy. So there's absolutely no need for all of us to want to look this way. We're not going to find happiness and peace with ourselves if these things weren't there before.
We don't need to have super lean bodies. We're also very different. Some people are naturally very lean. Others need to work for it. But to get our body fat percentages extremely low, definitely takes a lot of work from all of us.
What matters the most is staying healthy. You can build lean muscle and strength in a vey healthy way.
I would never say that there's anything wrong with wanting to change the body composition, unless a person is already extremely lean and it losing more fat could be harmful for her health, or if she has a background of hypothalamic amenorrhea, for example. It's fine to have aesthetic goals, but health needs to come first, and we definitely don't have to get down to extremely low body fat to achieve that.