The 'ideal' body composition for women
When we think about the 'ideal' body composition, we need to ask the question, ideal for what?
Ideal aesthetically. Ideal for health. Or ideal for performance?
These should all be the same image right?
Your ideal body type is the one that is going to keep you healthy and performing the sport you love for the longest time possible. You get to discover the uniqueness of what your ideal body looks like as the by product of giving it exactly what it needs, rather than punishing it to fit a sports or the medias image of ideal.
Body Composition for Health
What is a ‘healthy’ size and body composition for you is going to be different from that of the woman standing next to you.
This is for a range of reasons, some of which you can't change but some of which you can!
Body proportions: the length of your torso and limbs will automatically determine the way your muscles develop and how your body composition looks on you compared to someone with the same proportions of fat and lean mass.
Ethnicity: it is not just how much fat is stored but where it is stored that matters when it comes to your health. Body fat storage around the organs (visceral fat) and on the abdominal region are associated with increased health risks, particularly cardiovascular disease. While, fat stored on the hips, bum and thighs (gluteofemoral fat) is found to have a cardio-protective effect. You might have heard of the expression apples and pears.
One factor that influences body fat distribution is ethnicity. Asian women are found to have higher levels of visceral and abdominal fat with lower gluteofemoral fat compared to Caucasian women of similar body fat percentages. While black women have lower visceral and higher gluteofemoral fat than Caucasian women of similar body fat percentages. This means that a woman of Afro-caribbean decent could have a slightly higher body fat percentage than an Asian woman for the same degree of health risks. Naturally being an apple shape doesn't automatically make someone less healthy, it just increases the risk of certain health issues if someone's lifestyle isn't healthy and/or body fat stores are elevated. After all, exercise is one of the most effective ways to keep a healthy level of visceral fat.
Individual variation and genetics
Your individual genetics combined with your diet and exercise history as a child contribute body fat distribution, and therefore the range of body fat that your body functions optimally at. Specifically for women genetics plays a role determining where fat is distributed in the body. It also plays a role in the natural baseline level of hormones our body wants to produce (while this is an extreme example, I'm sure we have all become aware of this in light of the debate over Caster Semenya - read HERE, watch HERE). However, we can't forget that genetics are only a blueprint, lifestyle can interact with certain genes, turning them on or off (like some of our body fat distribution genes) but even if certain genes are turned on, this only creates potential for an outcome to occur (such as accumulating fat in the trunk region), it is lifestyle choices that make it come to life or not.
This has arguably the biggest impact on our health... at any size. Exercising regularly and eating a high-quality diet in the right amounts to sufficiently fuel our body reduces the risk of a plethora of acute and chronic health conditions. Two women can both be overweight so may both have increased health risks compared to if their BMI was in range, but one of these women that eats high-quality food and exercises will have a lower risk of health issues than the other. The same goes for women that have an 'in range' BMI. Due to lifestyle choices a woman with an in range BMI may even have higher health risks than the active woman who is overweight because a) she doesn't exercise and eats poor quality food OR b) she overtrains, has high-stress levels and eats less than her body requires to function optimally.
Studies looking at athletes with amenorrhea vs regularly menstruating athletes have found similar body fat % between the two groups - highlighting that what works for one woman won’t work for the next.
Body Composition for Performance
Nearly every sport has its stereotype of what a woman who excels in that sport should look like. For marathon runners this is a petite female who you might describe as being 'skinny'. For CrossFit athletes, this is a muscular woman who is lean and has abs that most men would be jealous of. It is easy to get drawn into idolising these body images and thinking that if you change your body to look like these stereotypes then your performance will improve.
Are these healthy aspirations? Will looking like these stereotypes actually improve my performance? and are these stereotypes reality? Let us look at two very different sports as examples.
If you look at the start-line of a marathon, much to your potential surprise, you’ll see an incredible example of body diversity. And this is throughout all of the pace groups, because, unlike some magazines and marketing companies may have you believe, you don’t have to be a specific size, weight or body composition to run.
It can’t be denied that science has shown a relationship between sum-of-skinfolds (body fat percentage) and faster paced running performances, but it can’t be denied that you need muscle to be able to run quickly. If you look at this image of some of the elite women in the New York City marathon in 2017, you’ll see they’re all different.
No two women have the same body composition, muscle definition, height, weight, etc… but yet they’re all dropping 5:40 minute miles. And that’s because they all have an individual range of weights/body compositions at which they function the best. For me, I might naturally be at a slightly higher BMI or body fat % than the woman/runner next to me. But if I were to drop down too much, or change dramatically, I wouldn’t be able to absorb training or achieve the performance that I want.
Take two elite American marathon runners: Allie Kieffer and Stephanie Bruce. Both runners have a marathon PB of 2:29. Both train hard and run high mileage weeks. Yet they look different aesthetically. They have both talked about their bodies and running and periods, so check out their articles here: Allie Kieffer and Stephanie Bruce
Having a high muscle mass and a lower body fat percentage is going to allow CrossFit athletes to perform well. The high muscle mass helping in barbell and strength based movements and the lower body fat reducing the load that needs to be moved in gymnastics work and aerobic efforts. However, the aim for these women is to fuel to perform, and with the vast diversity of event distances and skills required in the sport, they are all muscular.
However, some women fit the 'shredded' body image of a CrossFit woman while others do not.
Take a look at the photo below, these are all CrossFit athletes, all strong, all muscular but not all with flat stomachs and low body fat percentages.
Some of these top athletes like Lauren Fisher and Jamie Hagiya have spoken about body image within their sport. Read here about what they have to say about their performance and body image: Lauren Fisher and Jamie Hagiya.
Expectations vs reality
Firstly, we need to remember that an athletes job is to be a full time athlete, unlike for most of us, they aren't trying to fit training around a stressful job and sacrificing sleep to get up at 5am to do so!
Full time athletes, for the most part, can plan their lives around their training, prioritise getting enough sleep, having downtime for relaxation and recovery, and have nutritionists to hand to guide their training, rest and competition day nutrition. All these factors will influence their performance and body composition.
Also this body won’t have just magically appeared in 4 weeks. It takes YEARS of discipline and consistency.
Yes, a body like a professional athlete is achievable. If you decide to dedicate the amount of time they do…day in day out.
Liam (owner of pH Nutrition) works with a number of elite athletes. He always mentions that “performance” nutrition is not always the healthiest way to eat. At times, elite performance is not conducive to optimal health.
It is estimated that up to 25% of female athletes have amenorrhoea which could ultimately be impacting their current and future health.
And lastly, as we have seen, even amongst top athletes they don't all fit the stereotypes of their sport so why should you?
These are ALL professional athletes, watch their 'Female Athletes Model like Victoria's Secret Models' Video HERE
Healthy ranges of body mass and body fat percentage for women have been calculated based on the likelihood of health risks (BMI = 20-24.99 BF% ~19-30% for women under 50y/o). However, within these ranges, we have seen that body composition and health can be determined by a huge range of variables, some of which we can control while others we can't.
This is why you need to track and compare health and hormone balance markers over a consistent period of time, to assess your health status beyond what a number says the scales.
From a performance perspective, it's pretty clear, you don't need to fit a stereotype to excel. Find out what the healthiest, fittest version of you looks like!
This article was taken and adapted from one of the daily lessons in our nutrition program “How to Be a Fitter Woman”.
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