As a kid, I was always in awe of those thin, lanky girls in my class who never got fat. I was even more surprised that they managed to tuck in way more than I did on most occasions. Yet, I was the one who remained ‘plump’ and ‘healthy’ (the latter is a special euphemism used by Indian parents for overweight kids of all ages). By teenage, I realised that I only had to breathe to put on the pounds while the skinny friends of mine could gorge on all manner of goodies without a gram showing up on the scale.
It was also the teen years that I realised I could turn to sports to help redeem my future of being a ‘fatso’. There were entire school terms I did so with a vengeance. And it did work… until I stopped. Every vacation, a period of seven weeks, I successfully managed to turn back time and undo the hard work of an entire 4-month term. Well-meaning aunts and uncles visiting during those holidays would affectionately remind me that I should be ‘more active’ and laze around less.
Every vacation, a period of seven weeks, I successfully managed to turn back time and undo the hard work of an entire 4-month term.
As an adult, I continued to keep up an exercise regimen, even if it was patchy, so that laziness would not become a reason for being overweight. I had some good months and some not-so-good months. But I realised over time that, in my case, exercise was not a guarantee against weight gain, that simply eating less or moving more than my slim friends would not make me slimmer.
Do you have friends who seem the same size, even at 35, as they did when they were 22, while you sport sufficient curves and bulges to make you ‘look your age’? Or do you look at some of your schoolmates and marvel at how they filled out as adults while you could still turn out in a school uniform and look the part?
I realised over time that simply eating less or moving more than my slim friends would not make me slimmer.
What causes some people to gain weight, and, indeed, fat, easily while some others seem to have natural insurance against such bodily changes without any apparent effort? In one word, the answer is ‘metabolism’. Metabolism is the sum of chemical processes involved in the breakdown and build-up of cells in our body. Put simply, it is the process by which energy is utilised and created in the body. Each person has a specific rate of metabolism for carrying out day-to-day activities, called the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which determines how fast or slow one’s body handles the energy it receives, i.e. the food they eat.
Now, some people have a fast metabolism, which means their body burns energy from food at a faster rate than the average population (the thin girls from my childhood come to mind). They are the ectomorphs, usually skinny, with a small frame, thin and long limbs, and lean muscle. Their bodies are resistant to weight gain and, in fact, could lose weight quickly if they do not eat enough. This means they have a hard time putting on fat or muscle.
Some have a slow metabolism, as their body burns food energy at a slower rate than the average population (that’s me…sigh). They are the endomorphs, naturally plump, with a wide frame, round and tapered limbs, and a high fat-muscle ratio. Their bodies attract the pounds easily but lose them very slowly. They do, however, gain muscle quickly too.
Then there are the naturally lucky ones – the mesomorphs – the statistically average body type that people usually strive for. They have an athletic, medium build, and gain muscle easily as well as lose fat easily with moderation in exercise and nutrition. Their metabolism is neither too fast nor too slow for maintaining weight and body fat levels provided they follow a moderate diet.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to change one’s basic somatotype.
Three friends – an ecto, an endo and a meso – may each eat exactly the same food in the same quantity for several days and yet show completely different results on the weighing scale even if they started at the same weight. The reason is the rate of their metabolism. Unfortunately, it is not possible to change one’s basic somatotype.
Does that mean that you are stuck with whatever hand fate dealt you? To remain round and chubby if you are an endomorph, or skinny and fragile if you are an ectomorph (curse those mesomorphs!)?? Fortunately, no. Two factors, among others, play a major role in determining the BMR – age and exercise.
Younger people tend to have a relatively higher BMR than older people. That’s the reason daily servings of breads and pasta, typically high on calories, over an entire summer vacation, do little damage to pre-teens as far as weight gain is concerned. The same diet would start to reveal itself within a couple of weeks, if not days, for a middle-aged adult. BMR tends to drop as you grow older. So a 20-something endomorph could achieve the ‘fit’ look far quicker than a 40-year old mesomorph.
Exercise is the big game changer when it comes to increasing the BMR regardless of somatotype or age. Any form of exercise burns calories and adds to the rate of metabolism. (Of course, there are certain forms of exercise that help achieve a BMR higher than others.) Hence, a 35-year old endomorph who does weight-training regularly could look fitter and leaner than a 25-year old mesomorph who does not.
Does this mean that ectomorphs are doomed since they already have a high BMR and would only get thinner if it increased further? What an ectomorph needs is to add body mass, ideally muscle, to maintain a BMR that contributes to fitness. Thankfully, muscle-building is accessible to people of all ages, since it depends on exercise.
Exercise is the big game changer when it comes to increasing the BMR regardless of somatotype or age.
How do you determine what exercise is best for you? Several myths, misconceptions and even prejudices surround this question. I will discuss the most popular ones soon.