I read a recent article from a fashion mailer that was titled “how to get rid of stubborn fat”. The introduction, quite rightly, highlighted all the reasons why women might have higher and more stubborn levels of fat than men, putting much of it down to our hormones.
It also pointed out that our bodies hold onto fat because women need a bit of extra ‘squish’ for a healthy menstrual cycle and so that they can reproduce (if that’s what you want, or eventually do). Great. Makes sense. So why did I then go on to read about how to lose this fat given how it seems to be such a fundamental part of our evolutionary make-up?
“Why did I then go on to read about how to lose this fat given how it seems to be such a fundamental part of our evolutionary make-up?”
With the boom of fitness pin-ups on Instagram, I think we need to make sense of what’s reality, what’s not and what is simply unhealthy and harmful for the body. According to The Royal College of Nursing, women between the ages of 20-39 years should have body fat levels in the range of 21-33% total body weight. Anything below 21% is deemed too low and above 33% is deemed too high.
Having worked in a gym in my twenties, I saw first-hand the regimented, gruelling fitness and nutrition regimes that trainers put themselves through to obtain the perfect six-pack. It was clear that something was totally wrong with this all-or-nothing approach. Through girly chats we soon established that most of the trainers had very irregular menstrual cycles and, in many cases, no menstrual cycle at all (aka. amenorrhea).
“We soon established that most of the trainers had very irregular menstrual cycles and, in many cases, no menstrual cycle at all (aka. amenorrhea).”
When we strive to get our body fat so low, we’re essentially disrupting the natural balance of hormones (which, by the way, are one of the trickiest things to bring back into balance). It puts our bodies into a state of starvation and, because the body is incredibly clever, it instinctively knows that if you’re starving, it’s sure as hell not a great environment to bring a child into – so the menstrual cycle shuts down.
In addition to this, hard and gruelling fitness sessions can put a huge amount of stress on the body, increasing the release of cortisol – our stress hormone. When cortisol is high, your body moves away from producing reproductive hormones, therefore affecting the menstrual cycle again.
It has been well-documented in research that women who suffer from amenorrhoea are more likely to suffer from low oestrogen levels, increasing the likelihood of bone fractures and osteoporosis. It also has an effect on long-term cardiovascular health and increases the likelihood of developing cancer of the womb. No thanks! So why are we fighting so hard against something that our bodies were inherently programmed by nature to be and do?
Just to be clear, I’m definitely not saying that exercise is bad; regular, moderate exercise is good for us. It promotes better mental health, better cardiovascular health, among many other benefits – but particularly in the case of women and their hormones, there’s a tipping point. And, like with all things in life, we’re all so wonderfully unique that people’s tolerance levels and tipping points will also be different.
“I’m definitely not saying that exercise is bad… but particularly in the case of women and their hormones, there’s a tipping point.”
While we can’t just pinpoint over-exercising as being the sole cause for this issue, our obsession with a flat-as-a-pancake stomach and dolly-like legs has certainly pushed us in that direction. Very often in clinic, I hear about the mental effects it has on us too – which is, essentially, obsessive and addictive behaviour. The mental aspect of this issue is a whole other article in itself…
So how can we find that healthy exercise balance in our lives?
- Respect the fact that us women need a little ‘squish’; this is what nature intended! We all come in different shapes and sizes, but the key is working with what’s right for you. If you’re having to stick to strict fitness regimes or limited eating plans that cut out food groups, then you’re probably pushing your body into an unnatural state.
- Look at exercise as an opportunity to relax and unwind rather than achieving unrealistic body image goals in the gym. You’ll see that working out in an un-stressful way is just so much more fun!
- And, on the message of less stress and more enjoyment, why not find a sport that you love; it’s also a great way of learning a new skill.
- You don’t need to do high impact work-outs any more than two to three times per week (even just one session a week is enough for some people). Slowing down and giving your body calm and restoration is just as important. For anyone suffering from high stress levels, high impact workouts probably won’t even help in moderation; your focus should be on restorative exercise such as yin yoga, pilates, walking or gentle jogging.
- Don’t lose perspective on what’s real – health is not a jeans size or a low body fat percentage! Some of the people who deem themselves the fittest aren’t always the picture of health in other areas and certainly aren’t always the happiest! For perspective of this, the documentary ‘Embrace’ is a must see: watch here.
“Don’t lose perspective on what’s real – health is not a jeans size or a low body fat percentage!”
Zoe Stirling is a nutritional therapist and co-founder of healthy food hang-out, Squirrel, in London.