'Morph' Into Your Ideal Body

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Trying to build a whole new you? Before you hit the gym, or the grocery store, read our body type-specific tips. They'll help you get more out of your efforts.

By Liza Jane Maltin
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

If you're like most people, you probably vow to eat better, lose weight, and get fit. Yes, it's easier said than done. But you'd be better off understanding your body type and working with it rather than against it to achieve your goals. So what is your body type? Are you a long and lean ectomorph, a round endomorph, or a solid mesomorph?"

"We get sold a lot of false advertising that we can change our body type to whatever we want, but you have to work with what you're given," says registered dietician and noted fitness expert Annette Colby, PhD, RD, LD. She spoke with WebMD about the three basic body types, and how to exercise and eat most effectively based on your genetically-predetermined shape.

The 3 Somatotypes

William H. Sheldon, PhD, MD, introduced the concept of body types, or somatotypes, in the 1940s. Since then, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and even doctors have used it to help design effective, individualized fitness plans. The gist is that everyone falls, though not altogether neatly, into the three categories below. Keep in mind that these are generalizations, and that most of us have characteristics of two or even all three somatotypes.

Ectomorphs are long and lean, with little body fat, and little muscle. They have a hard time gaining weight. Fashion models and basketball players fit this category. While most of us love to hate these genetically-blessed individuals, some male ectomorphs may not be thrilled with their narrow-chested frames, and some female ectomorphs long for more womanly curves.

Endomorphs, on the other hand, have lots of body fat, lots of muscle, and gain weight easily. "Football lineman tend to be endomorphs -- they're heavier and rounder individuals," says Colby. "And they don't have to necessarily be overweight. Both Oprah Winfrey and Marilyn Monroe are classic examples of endomorphs."

Mesomorphs are athletic, solid, and strong. "They're not overweight and not underweight," says Colby, "and they can eat what they want without worrying too much about it." They both gain and lose weight without too much effort.

Classic combination somatotypes include pear-shaped ecto-endomorphs with thin, delicate upper bodies and high fat storage in the hips and thighs, and apple-shaped endo-ectomorphs, with high fat storage in the mid-section and thin lower bodies.

Impossible Goals

Colby says your somatotype "is a combination of your musculature, and your bone structure, and density." These characteristics are genetically determined and unchangeable. "The width of your hips or shoulders, for example, you can't change them with exercise." No amount of exercise can transform a short-limbed woman into a lithe supermodel, or a diminutive jockey into a muscle-bound linebacker.

TV ads and infomercials touting gym memberships, diet plans, and exercise equipment can be extremely misleading, says Colby. They show miraculous changes happening almost overnight. "It's an illusion that you can be whatever you want to be if you just try hard enough and have enough willpower." That's not to say you can't make significant changes, however.

What you can do, she says, is learn to eat and exercise in a way that emphasizes and develops your best features, while downplaying those you'd love to change if only you could. "Knowing your body type can definitely help you do the exercises that are best for you," says Colby. "You wouldn't want to do a lot of lunges, for example -- which build lower-body muscle -- if you're bottom heavy to begin with, because you might get discouraged and quit."

Here are some somatotype-specific tips to help you reach your personal best:

Eat and Exercise Right for Your Type

If you're an ectomorph struggling to put some meat on your bones, Colby suggests you first see a doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions. Then, "take a good look at your diet." If you only eat three times a day, "try aiming for five or six meals." For snacks and meals, choose nutrient- and calorie-dense foods like nuts, dried fruits, sunflower seeds, and starchy vegetables, rather than lower-cal choices like fresh fruits and popcorn. Don't skimp on fat, either -- makes sure that 30% of your calories come from fat.

When exercising, ectomorphs should keep cardio or aerobic training to a minimum while concentrating on muscle-building moves with fairly heavy weights.

If you're an endomorph, avoid crash dieting. It will only make your body cling to its fat reserves. Instead, adjust your diet so you're eating more frequent, smaller meals, no more than five hours apart. Try to eat slowly, and drink plenty of water. Eat lean proteins and high-fiber foods to help you feel full longer. And don't be fooled by the fat-free fad -- you need a little fat to stay healthy.

Endomorphs should do at least 30 minutes of moderately-paced aerobic activity five days a week. Try walking, jogging, bicycling, dancing, or any other activity that gets your heart pumping. When the pounds start coming off, add weight training two or three times a week to tone and strengthen your muscles. "Adding more muscle helps you burn extra calories all day long," says Colby.

Genetically lucky mesomorphs may have an easier time than most staying slim and fit, but "this can be a double-edged sword," says Colby. "They have a tendency to assume that they can handle an extra helping of dessert or a hiatus from the gym. But the same rules for health and well-being apply to them" as to everyone else. Osteoporosis, heart disease, and other diet- and lifestyle-related diseases can affect anyone, regardless of body type.

Following these guidelines "would definitely help," Colby tells WebMD. "You can work with what you have. Improvement is possible. You can't totally remodel, you can't totally redesign what you've been given, but you can balance things out."

Going to Extremes?

"Most of my work is about body image and healing," says Colby. "My overall message is finding love for who you are. You've been given one body that will last a lifetime. You should take care of it. You can't resurface and remodel it completely. You need to find acceptance."

But what if, after you've taken the suggestions, made the changes, and stuck with them long enough to see results, you still aren't satisfied with the skin you're in? Perhaps it's those saddlebags that won't budge, or that spare tire that no amount of diet or exercise will deflate. What then?

Should you resort to cosmetic surgery to reach your goals? It all depends on your motivation, and what you hope to gain from the procedure, says Colby. "If you recognize that it's not going to make you happier, fulfill childhood dreams, or heal your wounds -- but you just want to make surface changes -- that's fine," she says. "All of us have to struggle with this -- where we accept our body and where we make changes. And all of us, as we age, face the same question. Do we accept it, or do we fight it?"

Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, and "everyone will have a different opinion" of who and what is attractive," she says. "You have to decide for yourself what's best for you. In the end, we all sleep with ourselves."

Originally published Jan. 6, 2002.

Medically updated Nov. 30, 2004.

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