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Q. I'm puzzled. I'm an athletic 39-year-old female. I recently started serious weight training after biking and running for a number of years. I've run two marathons. I also watch my diet, especially fat.
Here's the problem. Since I've been weight training, my weight has gone up about 10 pounds! My diet hasn't changed and my activity level has probably increased. I'm definitely stronger and more defined, but my clothes don't fit any more. This bothers me a lot.
My legs are a special problem. They're beefier, rather than leaner looking and more cut. I have fat deposits on my thighs and even though they're more solid, the fat still shows. I'd like to be able to wear a mini-skirt, but I have mixed emotions. Frankly, I'm so disturbed that I am thinking about giving up weight training. Any suggestions?
A. Hold on. This is no time to give up. The fact that you've gained weight after taking up weight training - even though your diet and activity level have not changed - indicates that weight training is doing its job well. Obviously, your body is quite responsive to strength training. You're gaining muscle and that's good. The problem you have is more related to gender, and with patience and persistence it can usually be overcome.
Male And Female Fat Deposits are Different
As I'm sure you've noticed, men gain weight on their bellies and women tend to accumulate fat on their hips and thighs. Researchers have recognized this since the 1940s, according to Physiology of Sports and Exercise, the excellent textbook by Jack W. Wilmore, Ph.D.,and David L. Costill, Ph.D.(Human Kinetics, 1994). My thighs are always cut, even when I put on a few pounds. Where the extra weight shows is on my waist. Happily, I can lose the weight on my belly almost as easily as I gain it. That's the way it is for most men. Unfortunately, women are not so lucky, Their hip and thigh fat is much more stubborn. This is a basic difference between these male and female fat deposits.
"Love handle" fat that men accumulate on their sides is different. It's just under the skin and called subcutaneous fat. As the name suggests, you can grab it and shake it. Like female thigh fat, it's hard to get rid of. However, men's potbelly fat, the kind I'm referring to, is located deep within the abdominal area, around the internal organs; exercise physiologists call it visceral fat. That's why potbellied men often have relatively hard abdomens. When I was in high school, a big bellied classmate like to demonstrate his "rock hard stomach" by having us punch him as hard as we could. I remember being impressed at the time, but now I know that his abdominal muscles were simply stretched tight over a lot of deep abdominal fat. That's where men pack on fat readily.
Good Fat, Bad Fat
This is a good-news, bad-news situation for both men and women, but for different reasons.
Deep fat, that men have in their abdominal region, according to Big Fat Lies, (Fawcett Columbine, 1996) the book by Glenn A. Gaesser, Ph.D., which was recently featured in a Newsweek magazine cover story (August 21, 1997), is "metabolically hyperactive," both in storing and releasing fat at "a breakneck pace." That's both good and bad. Bad because the fat released into the blood stream often ends up clogging the coronary arteries and can lead to hypertension, diabetes and other metabolic problems. Good because, as I've already suggested, exercise and diet are quite effective in reducing visceral fat.
A study described by Dr. Gaesser in Big Fat Lies shows the effect of exercise on male belly fat. Researchers at Osaka University Medical School studied fifteen young professional Sumo wrestlers. Despite their obvious obesity, the Sumo wrestlers had relatively little visceral fat, as assessed by CAT scans. They also had low levels of blood cholesterol (160 mg/dl), and normal levels of triglycerides (105 mg/dl) and blood sugar (95 mg/dl), all levels generally associated with modest amounts of visceral fat. Quips Dr. Gaesser, "The moral seems to be: If you're going to eat a lot, then exercise a lot too."
For men it's easy on - with possible serious health consequences - and easy off. But for women it's almost the reverse. Women have the edge health wise, but it comes with a price.
Female hip and thigh fat present substantially less health risk than male abdominal fat, say Robert A. Robergs, Ph.D., and Scott O. Roberts, Ph.D. in their new textbook EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGY: Exercise, Performance, and Clinical Applications (Mosby, 1997). Dr. Gaesser explains why. He says it's because the female fat tissue takes potentially harmful fat out of the blood stream. Female lower-body fat cells contain an abundance of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which says Dr. Gaesser: "causes them to store fat easily," and as you can verify, "give it up very begrudgingly."
So the good news is that you are an unlikely candidate for heart disease and other serious ailments. Unfortunately, the bad news is that most women will always have more fat on their thighs than a man. That seems to be Mother Nature's plan. (Covert Bailey, author of Smart Exercise (Houghton Mifflin, 1994) and many other bestsellers, believes it is related to the child bearing function; he says breast feeding activates release of fat from the thighs.)
Still, there's no need for despair; the situation is far from hopeless. Through a combination of exercise (weights and aerobics) and a sensible, low-fat diet, most women can develop shapely legs. According to Covert Bailey, who has personally measured the body fat of hundreds of women, thighs usually slim down when total fat gets to about 18%
My recommendation is that you keep doing what you're doing now. Continue biking and running in moderation - excessive endurance exercise destroys muscle tissue - eat a balanced, low-fat diet (don't starve yourself) and, by all means, keep lifting. The muscle that weight training builds not only puts curves on your quads, it burns fat around the clock. Muscle is what keeps your metabolic fires burning brightly. Slowly, but surely, the unsightly fat on your thighs will moderate, and maybe even disappear.
For specific details on combining weights, aerobics and diet, read my book Lean For Life, which you'll find in the products section of this site. Finally, whenever you feel discouraged - and you will occasionally - check out the fitness competitors in the bodybuilding magazines you'll find on any newsstands - Muscle & Fitness, Muscular Development, Ironman and MuscleMag are the old standbys - for evidence of what consistent, intelligent weight training and aerobics will do for a women's thighs.
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