Are You After the Perfect Body?

Make the most of your body

Woman working out in class at gym
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We often dream about getting the perfect body, sometimes doing outrageous things in the pursuit of it - Fad diets, infomercial gadgets sold by disturbingly enthusiastic people, exercise for hours on end. Yet, despite all of the hard work, we rarely achieve it. Witness this conversation I overheard at the gym between two women:

(As a tall, thin and glistening woman walked by) "Oh, look at her. She's so skinny.

She probably hasn't eaten since the 80s."
"You know she's had work done — nobody could look that perfect without some help."
"Listen to you talk! I would kill for your thighs."
"Oh, please — look at these flabby things! And you're one to talk, Ms. Perfect Abs."
"Perfect? Maybe perfectly awful."

These women looked amazing but, like many of us, they were so focused on their imperfections, they weren't seeing what I was seeing.

Whether you're a man or a woman, chances are you don't have the perfect body. Chances are even greater that you've done things to get the perfect body - Leg lifts and crunches, hours on the treadmill and hundreds of salads — all the while hoping that you'll finally get rid of those love handles or those chunky thighs.

Unfortunately, all the exercise and dieting in the world may not be enough to achieve that perfection so many of us desire; we're still a product of our genes.

The question then becomes, "How much can we really change and what do we do if we can't get that perfect body?"

How Much Can You Change Your Body?

We all approach our bodies differently. Some people scrutinize every detail to see what they have or haven't achieved. Others studiously avoid looking at themselves unless they absolutely have to.

We see people at the gym or on the street and think, "Why can't I look like that?"

One reason is that many aspects of your body are determined by factors beyond your control, and that starts with your body type.

What's Your Body Type?

While we don't know the exact role genes play in what we can accomplish with our bodies, we do know that they determine basic body type. These body types have been broken down into three different categories:

  • Endomorph - This body type tends to have a higher body fat, big bones and a slower metabolism. For that reason, it may be difficult to lose weight.
  • Mesomorph - With this body type, a person is more muscular and may have an easier time losing fat and gaining muscle.
  • Ectomorph - People with this body type tend to be lean and may even have trouble gaining weight due to a faster metabolism.

Most of us fall somewhere in between these different body types, which means that some of us will lose weight easily and quickly while others won't. There are also different body shapes: An apple shape is larger in the upper body, a pear shape is larger in the hips and thighs, an hourglass has a proportional upper and lower body with a smaller waist and an athletic shape is often thin without many curves.

Depending on which shape you have, you'll likely have areas where you store excess fat, making those areas the toughest to change.

While we may think that the right combination of exercise and diet will give us the ideal body, we may be limited by our inherited body type.

So what does that mean for you? The truth is, no one can tell what you can or can't change about your body. You can lose or gain fat by burning more or less calories, and you can change the amount of muscle you have by lifting weights. You can control the calories you put in your body and the calories you expend with exercise and activity, but what you can't do is choose where you lose that fat or gain that muscle.

So what if you do everything right and you still have stubborn areas of fat you can't seem to get rid of? One option is, of course, plastic surgery, but I have a better idea: Instead of trying to change what may be out of reach, what if you changed your body image? What if you could forget about getting the perfect body and work on getting your perfect body? It all starts with learning to accept your body and working on some new goals for yourself.

Accepting Your Body

The idea of accepting your body just the way it is may seem completely foreign to you. In fact, it feels like the world around us is set on keeping us unhappy with our bodies. We constantly see ads, commercials and infomercials for diets, pills and gadgets to help us reshape every inch of our bodies. There are magazines with headlines promising solutions for everything from flabby abs to dimpled thighs. If you didn't know better, you'd think getting the perfect body is something we should all be working on day and night.

In addition, we may balk at the idea of body acceptance. If we accept our bodies, won't we become complacent? If we embrace our imperfections, won't we lose our motivation to exercise or eat right?

Actually, the opposite is true. Some studies have shown that a healthy body acceptance actually encourages us to exercise and eat right. The reason? People who are comfortable with their bodies emphasize function over appearance, so they eat more intuitively, eating foods that make them feel good when they're hungry. Meanwhile, people who diet because of body dissatisfaction are more likely to fail.

There are a number of ways to work on body acceptance, including learning how to be more aware of your body. Exercise is also a great way to build confidence, get more connected and appreciate how strong you are. Learning how to shift your focus from the perfect body to a healthy body may mean setting new exercise goals. That's your first step toward body acceptance.

While exercise isn't a magic pill for creating the perfect body, it does have magical qualities on your body image and self-esteem. A variety of studies have shown that people of all ages and genders improve self-esteem, self-worth and perceptions of how attractive they are after starting an exercise program.

While many of us use exercise as a tool to get the perfect body, it can also be a tool for shifting your focus away from perfection and on what you can accomplish each and every day.

Here are just a few things exercise can improve:

  • Strength and endurance. When you exercise, you may be so focused on the scale that you're not aware of other progress you've made. If you pay attention, though, you'll notice those strength gains in other areas of your life, such as being able to carry more groceries or pick up your kids or grandkids without throwing out your back. You'll have more energy to get everything done without feeling exhausted.
  • Confidence. Mastering a new activity makes you more confident. You may start that kickboxing class or strength-training workout tripping over your own feet or feeling a little ridiculous, but it only takes a few workouts for your body to get better at those activities. That confidence may spur you to even greater goals, such as signing up for a race or taking an active vacation.
  • Connection. We spend so much time sitting, we forget what it feels like to actually move our bodies. When you start exercising, you learn about your body in a whole different way: how it feels when your heart speeds up and your breathing increases. You feel your muscles contract, and best of all, you feel your own power. That awareness makes you realize you're capable of so many things.
  • Function over appearance. When you spend more time moving your body, you become more interested in doing things to make it work more efficiently. Now instead of only focusing on how to make your thighs thinner, you're focusing on how to make them stronger, so you can make it through that next 3-mile run. Your goals change as you focus on staying healthy and fit.

    Rethink Your Goals.

    If you're ready to give up on the idea of perfection, it's time to set new goals for yourself. Doing this will open the door for new ways of thinking and exercising. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have a goal to lose weight or even improve on different areas of your body. It's when those goals leave you frustrated that it may be time for a change. Try this step-by-step process for creating new goals:

    1. Make a list of your goals. Write down every goal you have and estimate how long you've had that goal (e.g., "I've wanted smaller thighs for the last 25 years").
    2. Assess your goals. Put a star next to any goals that, a) you've had for years and haven't achieved, b) may be out of reach and, c) make you feel bad about yourself. For example, if you've been trying to get rid of those love handles for the last five years, nothing has worked and you feel awful every time you think about it, that goal deserves a star.
    3. Get rid of your impossible goals. Go through the goals you marked and ask yourself how likely it is that you'll reach that goal, given all the time and energy you've already spent on it. Then ask yourself what would happen if you crossed it off your list. What if you decided to forget about getting rid of those love handles once and for all?
    1. Set new goals. Just because you get rid of some goals doesn't mean you stop working toward something else. The difference now is that you can set goals based on new parameters. Instead of getting rid of your love handles, what if you focused on getting in a certain number of workouts each week or building strength so that you can do more with your kids? Think about what you want your body to do rather than what you want it to look like, and set your goals accordingly.

    You may need some help in both letting go of old goals and setting new ones. These resources can help you get started:

    Rethinking your goals may mean changing how you exercise. Next, learn how you can exercise for a healthy body.

    Part of giving up on the perfect body is changing how you think about your body and exercise. It's funny how exercise can seem impossible when you're trying to change your body...and why not? Doing hundreds of crunches to get flat abs would frustrate anyone, especially since spot reduction simply isn't possible.

    Opening your mind, however, to the possibility that exercise can be used for something other than reshaping your body may just put physical activity within your reach.

    Consider these different activities and how you may use them to further your new goals:

    Cardio Goals

    You know cardio burns calories and that helps with losing weight. It can also:

    • Strengthen your heart, making it work more efficiently
    • Increase your lung capacity
    • Improve bone density
    • Lower bad cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes
    • Lower stress, depression and anxiety
    • Help you sleep better

    Looking at these benefits may help you come up with new goals. For example, knowing cardio can lower bad cholesterol could inspire you to set a goal to get off your cholesterol meds using regular workouts. Or you could work toward reducing your stress by scheduling short workouts throughout the day. 

    Learn more at Why You Need Cardio Exercise.

    Strength Training Goals

    Like cardio, strength training is great for losing fat and gaining muscle — both of which contribute to looking better. Since you're getting away from perfection, though, other reasons to lift weights include:

    • Increased strength and endurance
    • Protection from injuries
    • Better coordination and muscle control
    • Improved balance and stability

    Use some of these benefits to set your new goals. For example, if you have problems with back pain caused from sitting too much, set a goal to try exercises to reduce your pain.

    If you fade out when you're doing yardwork or housework, set a goal to strengthen your entire body, so your daily chores become easier. 

    Yoga Goals

    Yoga is all about balance and making the connection between the mind, body and spirit while developing strength and flexibility. If you have tight muscles, use yoga workouts to increase your flexibility. If you're stressed out, set a goal to do a short yoga workout in the morning or evening for more relaxation. You can also try these simple poses anytime you need a break:

    • Mountain Pose. Most yoga movements begin with mountain pose, a move that allows you to align your body and pause for a moment to become aware of how you feel. It seems as if you're just standing there, but the pose is actually very active and you can do it anytime, anywhere.
    • Sun Salutations. Sun salutations are often used to warm up the body during yoga. The movement follows your breath and involves opening up your chest and then falling forward, feeling a great stretch and release in your back and hamstrings.
    • Corpse Pose. This pose is usually done at the end of yoga class and, like Mountain Pose, is a great way to pause and just think about your breathing and how you feel.

    Try more yoga poses in these yoga workouts and find detailed instructions for a variety of yoga poses.

    Pilates

    Like yoga, Pilates is another activity that requires your full attention, which can strengthen your connection to your body along with working on core strength and endurance. These simple Pilates moves are great for focusing on your body and learning how to fully engage your core for strength and stability:

    • Breathing exercises. Learning to breath correctly is the basis of a complete Pilates practice. It's also a great way to promote relaxation.
    • Pelvic tilts. Pelvic tilts help you learn more about how to use your abs without engaging other muscle groups to get maximum control.
    • Pelvic Clock. This subtle exercise helps you learn how to fully engage your abs and pelvis for support during other exercises.

    It can be difficult to let go of goals you've had for so long, and you may even feel a little lost at the idea of giving up that perfect body. What you also give up, though, is a constant frustration and guilt with being unable to achieve those goals. Once your goal for perfection is out of the picture, imagine the tangible things you can accomplish, and you may just turn into that active person you've always wanted to be.

    Sources:

    Avalos, Laura C., Tylka, Tracy L. Exploring a Model of Intuitive Eating With College Women. J Couns Psy. 2006 Oct Vol 53(4) 486-497.

    Brownell, Kelly D. Dieting and the search for the perfect body: Where physiology and culture collide. Behavior Therapy. 1991 Win Vol 22(1) 1-12.

    Malina, Robert M., et al. Somatotype and cardiovascular risk factors in healthy adults. Am J Human Bio, 1998 Vol 9(1) 11 - 19.

    McAuley E, Mihalko SL, Bane SM. Exercise and self-esteem in middle-aged adults: multidimensional relationships and physical fitness and self-efficacy influences. J Behav Med. 1997 Feb;20(1):67-83.

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