• Women’s Body Image: Calorie Restriction, Strength Training, & Weight Loss

    I get to work with a lot of women who want to lose weight on the fitness side as a personal trainer and on the nutrition side as a registered dietitian.  Most women who come in to “lose weight” really just want to change their body composition, and it is interesting to see whether people think it is their eating habits or their exercise program that will do that for them.

    While I do assess whether they are actually overweight or not through a variety of different assessment parameters, weight loss often tends to reinforce a body image that is inaccurate for women in society, especially if they are not truly overweight.  That gets us to the methodology.

    Restricting to maintain a light frame is not healthy because it is an unrealistic healthy body.  It is really just nutrient deprived and fitness deprived, especially as you age and are no longer able to maintain an idealized adolescent and thin teenage body that many women think is healthy.

    Colleagues who work in eating disorders have found out that letting these women who really aren’t overweight or have health issues due to their weight actually attempt to lose weight is not helpful even if done in “a healthy way” because it reinforces anorexic psychology and behaviors.

    I find this valuable information because often times, my belief has been that “hey, you can try it, but you won’t like the outcome when you get there because it won’t be the body type you are looking for anyway and are probably going to gain the weight back again without any change in overall fitness ability.”  Unfortunately, people are going to do what they want.

    If they try to diet and weight comes back, I figure it is a learning experience because many men and women are determined to do what they’re going to do anyway.  Why be resistant?  Why not teach them to do it in a healthier way to reduce the risk of malnutrition and let them learn from the experience?

    This is only for women who are slightly overweight according to some of the traditional weight assessments.  If they are clearly underweight or normal weight, I don’t help them on that restriction.  It is unethical.

    What I find many women are often saying, is something like “I don’t like my body” or “I don’t feel sexy in my body,” and they are focusing on WEIGHT only as the only measure of that.
     
    First of all, feeling sexy has to do with a lot of things, including having self esteem.  It is not just physiology and body composition.  Working with a qualified psychotherapist (I know a few good ones) often helps you figure out what to focus on and what is important.  Sometimes, a weight obsession is really tangent to something deeper.
     
    Having worked with many women who come to me as a personal trainer to “lose weight” (even though physically training for a few hours a week results in mild, if any, weight loss, which is frustrating for them when it is explained to them on the first day), many women come out of it with a more positive body image, feel sexier, fit into their clothes better, have a tighter body, and they weigh MORE or the SAME while eating MORE or the SAME amount of food.
     
    It is also obvious to me as a trainer which clients are restricting or under eating when working out because they never improve and are hungry working out on low calorie diets, among many other signs and symptoms I will not go into detail in a blog post.  They are stuck on the light weights.  They never fully recover.
     
    While some women want to maintain an image of being small and frail, I do not support it when training because it isn’t healthy.  Osteoporosis, or lean mass?
     
    Getting women to buy a healthier body image, ie one that is strong, can lift more than pink 5 lb dumbbells, and consume over 2000-2400 Calories is what I try to do.  It is difficult.  It is its own area of eating disorder work, not even recognized by the old school eating disorder specialists.  Of course, they don’t even lift or train people! 🙂
     
    The summary of what I’m trying to say is that while some women are focused on body image, teaching women what a healthy body image is with strength training and eating more is probably what is most helpful for them long term due to the relapse rate of women who just try to modify their body with diet alone.
     
    Many women will likely be focused on their body image either way, so why not give tangible feedback through fitness parameters they are not able to meet when restricting?
     
    To clarify, strength training is NOT bodybuilding, as that is an ENTIRELY different concept.  Strength training produces results with very little time in the gym and very little loss of fitness in weeks of not doing it with strength goals rather than calorie burn and aesthetic goals.  Bodybuilding is aesthetics focused.
     
    The problem is that when some women go to do a workout program, it is circuit training, non-specific, non-goal oriented resistance training, “go-for-the-burn spinning classes or CrossFit,” pink weights with dance music and air crunches (about as hard as it sounds), stretching, pilates, yoga, and a small percentage go with bodybuilding, which is also not what I would recommend for a positive body image because the focus is on aesthetics/weight/body fat% rather than fitness parameters you can improve with goal-oriented training programs.
     
    Goal oriented training programs focus on overall increase in functional capacity like weight lifted, repetitions (reps), and sets with moderate progressive overload.  They focus on attaining better coordination, balance, agility, strength, REASONABLE muscular and cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and body composition.  However, I’m not promoting the concept of mainstream “functional training” programs, as that is not standardized either.  Those programs sometimes make no sense to me either as to the purpose of some of their exercises.
     
    In comparison to bodybuilding, strength training focuses not just on body composition but also other important and more readily testable exercises that show you are actually more adept at moving your body in space in time rather than just lifting weights till your muscles are broken down to the maximum for no purpose other than to build them.
     
    Sometimes it is amazing to me how much exercise people do that is not doing anything for their bodies in terms of aesthetics, yet they are focused entirely on aesthetics for exercise.
     
    I’m sure many of us have heard others say they walk 8 miles a day “to burn calories,” while simultaneously complaining they have no butt, or they adopt a running program for the sole purpose of calorie burn and again wonder why their butt isn’t getting nicer (it doesn’t overload the gluteal muscles and is not high intensity).  These are not fitness goals that are healthy, and frankly, it is an abuse of the purpose of exercise.
     
    The problem is trying to get women to strength train, something that may make them fit into clothes better independent of calorie restriction (or even by eating more food!).  Some do not want to do it because of this unhealthy body image that women are supposed to be thin, skinny (more like skinny-fat), frail, and if they lift anything over 5 lbs they may start to look like a man.  This is an irrational, but all too common a belief.
     
    Being frail is not cool!  If more women strength trained, I think it would cut down the number of women who are dissatisfied with their bodies significantly.  Bodies are made to move and be strong.
     
    Strength training also can give realistic negative feedback on your physical condition as a result of cutting calories, thus giving negative reinforcement to the restrictive and thin mentality.  Use “that butt” as a reason to actually eat more food because you won’t get “that butt” if you don’t eat more and lift heavy.
     
    Big guys train hardcore, sometimes have chemical help, and lift more than 50 lbs.  Most lift more than 100 lbs.  Getting to the 30 lb dumbbells as a woman and squatting your body weight should be seen as an accomplishment, not that you are manly.  Furthermore, male testosterone levels are much higher than women’s, so even if lifting the same amount as a man, you will not look like a man.  Times change, and so should women’s body image evolve to a healthier one that strength trains.
     

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