Genes and jeans size

There seems to be a goal that has consistently stood the test of time, improved body shape or more succinctly put, weight loss. From the affluent lords of their time battling gout associated with excess weight from rich food and immoderate alcohol intake, to modern day adolescents who view slim waists and protruding hip bones as the ultimate aim for the perfect selfie. Today health concerns, associated with surplus weight, make headlines, drive health policies, and form the basis of scientific hypothesis. Superfoods and evolving exercise regimes offer the answer to all our weight goals, with each advert, website, or blog claiming to hold the holy grail – sometimes with a hefty price tag.

Four years ago I made the decision to address my empty nest status by welcoming two dogs into my home. I am a seasoned dog owner and know the different breeds rather better than the average person on the street. My breed of choice is any kind of terrier because they keep you on your toes with their vivacious personalities and demands. My quest was for one dog but with a little prompting from my other half we acquired two bitches from the same litter. It took a while to settle on names for my little black and tan miniature pinschers because their registered names of Fudgy Wudgy and Minstrel could potentially make me desire chocolate every time I call them and that goes contrary to my profession. After much deliberation I settled on Fortnum and Mason. Pretentious, perhaps, but it makes me think of all that exotic fruit, vegetables, and succulent meat that the famous shop in Regent street sells in the basement.

So here I have twins (fraternal, not identical) of the same sex who share DNA from the same parents and stayed with their mother for 16 weeks upon my insistence. Fortnum and Mason get exactly the same amount of food and daily walks and, apart from Mason being slightly darker coloured than Fortnum, there was little to distinguish them up to the age of 6 months. At that point they were sterilised and physiological change became a lot more obvious. Mason’s girth became bigger than Fortnum’s despite nothing changing in terms of diet, exercise or attention. The veterinary surgeon who performed the sterilisation did warn me that this might happen due to the change in hormone secretion.

I look at Fortnum and Mason and see how they represent two types of people. The Fortnums of this world are born slim and their body composition and weight fluctuate marginally throughout their lives whereas the Masons tend to exhibit increasing weight for no apparent reason and despite eating and exercising in a similar fashion. Fortnum can eat whatever is dished out for her and her weight stays stable and her body lean. Mason can only attempt to look like Fortnum by severely restricting her food intake and increasing her physical activity – a lifelong journey of vigilance.

We are still being told that calorie restriction is a fundamental step in addressing obesity despite observational studies refuting this dogma. Programs like ‘The Biggest Loser’ successfully show that obese individuals do lose weight when changing their eating habits. Any change in diet correlates with a change in body composition. If you replace your regular breakfast of a bacon sandwich and a latte with a carefully weighed quantity of porridge oats made with water and without any sweetening agent (sugar, honey or substitute sweetener) plus a cup of herbal tea, you will notice weight loss within a couple of weeks. Similarly if you go on a two week holiday and enjoy a more abundant breakfast, lunch, and dinner compared to what you normally have the other 50 weeks of the year, you notice an uncomfortable tightening in your trousers or skirt once you head back to the office. For a Mason an increase in girth size will be greater and much more difficult to rectify than for a Fortnum. Similarly weight loss for a Mason comes much slower than for a Fortnum.

The other instruction to address obesity is exercise and the nation is encouraged to move more out of their own accord, engage in team sports or head to the gym. There is no better time to join a gym than after the New Year festivities or before the summer holidays. You are surrounded by equally motivated Mason type individuals that all have the same goal; weight loss. The male Fortnums are more likely to engage in weight training to bulk up and the female Fortnums join yoga and pilates groups to work on their flexibility and core strength, given that weight loss is not their primary concern. Some people decide running is both inexpensive and a sure way to lose weight. When I take Fortnum and Mason to the park for a run around, Fortum has this effortless stride and outruns her sister without breaking a sweat. Mason huffs and puffs like a steam engine trying her utmost to catch her ever elusive sister. The human Fortnums are natural born runners and more likely to compete in marathon running. The Masons, on the other hand, enter a marathon non-competitively and are visibly emotionally overwhelmed when they cross the finish line because those 26 miles of tarmac that they have just pounded for hours signify a personal feat. Most elite marathon runners are very lean and their intense training ensure that not an ounce of excess body fat accumulates. If you meet an ex elite marathon runner you are very likely to find an individual that maintained that slight build despite no longer competing. But the Masons of this world, despite having been elite athletes in their past, tend to change their body shapes once the intensity of training and careful dietary restriction are no longer needed for optimal sporting performance.

When we reach the point of engaging in overall health improvement by means of GP insistence or shock at your reflection in the bathroom mirror, the choice of expert is vital. If you are a Mason body type and you decide to seek out dietary advice be aware that if your nutrition consultant is a Fortnum type their advice might not work as well for you as you might desire . It is one thing to have extensive biology knowledge and quite another when you combine that with personal experience. A qualified consultant who is a Mason themselves is more likely to have a much better understanding of the journey involved in helping you achieve your health goal. An expert who was born lean and maintained their post adolescent weight all their lives can impart comprehensive nutritional knowledge and as an exercise instructor offer a complete workout and much needed motivation but might not fully comprehend the complexity of a Mason body type. Having the experience of weight management by being a Mason body type themselves gives a trainer and nutrition consultant additional insight in the extra effort and time needed to achieve health goals. Yet nutrition and fitness experts who do not fit the accepted mould of overly lean physique are often viewed as less adept to support a client in attaining their health goals.

When you join a training facility and your instructor or personal trainer is the opposite sex and body type to you, their expertise can take you up to a certain point. For a female client an obviously muscular, well defined male instructor is an excellent drill sergeant, pushing you to increase your reps, choose heftier weights, and limit resting time, because that is what it takes to build their bodies to that impressive, chiselled, statue like status. If you are a female Mason, experiencing female hormonal changes, who do not desire a bulked up, defined musculature, that type of training is more likely to result in injury than a smaller jean size because it is very difficult to listen to your own body’s needs when you are taken up in the group hype of ‘“one more minute, don’t be a quitter, just work through the pain”.

For the male Fortnums it can be equally frustrating to want to build muscle as this body type is genetically predisposed to remain lean. The media and myriad of romance novels give the impression that only a visibly muscular man with rippled abdominal muscles and bulging glutei is suitable for investing your romantic future in. Despite the array of protein powders, available at considerable long-term financial cost and questionable palatability, it is an arduous road for a Fortnum male to achieve that desired Mr Universe physique. Putting on weight can be as difficult as losing the extra pounds is for a Mason body type. The additional challenge is to only put on healthy weight and not weight at any cost. A lean frame with a soft, bulging abdomen is not society’s ideal of an Adonis or the perfect beach, bikini endorsement, nor is it consistent with positive long-term health outcomes. Excess abdominal weight, defined by waist-to-hip ratio > 0.85 for women and 0.90 for men (dividing the measurement of your waist by your hip measurement), is associated with a host of health conditions including diabetes.

It seems that a Mason male and Fortnum female body type fulfils modern day requirements so what do you do when you do not fit the stereotype? Do you make peace with your lot and give up? As a Mason there is no quick fix or snake oil to help you realise your end goal of weight loss. You cannot simply rely on exercise to mitigate your nutritional sins either. Nor will mindful eating alone result in stronger, leaner muscle definition. The road to ideal (or more acceptable) body composition will be long, onerous, and never ending. If, as a Mason female, you bore children in your youth, you might inevitably end up with a visible extended girth – related to the muscle changes you experienced during your pregnancy – around the time of menopause when you face yet another major sex hormone upheaval. This is normal and acceptance will make this time of transition infinitely sweeter to stomach. We are all more likely to evolve into a Mason than Fortnum following midlife, bar severe calorie restriction usually associated with poverty, food scarcity, and major health complications.

It is comforting to know that most people do not embark on loving, long-term relationships based purely on physiology. I know many couples who are living happily ever after despite not having enviable body shapes. I similarly encounter people who can effortlessly partake in the body conscious London fashion show and are single. The main objective of this discussion is long-term health outcome.

A Mason body type is genetically geared towards strength training. A strong musculature is extra protection for the later years when the risk of falling over and breaking bones can render a patient incapacitated for weeks. Recovery is likely to be slow, due to advancing years, and subsequent infections can have disastrous outcomes.

Funda, a 46-year old London based personal trainer, is a typical Mason body type. She describes herself as the chubby kid in school who avoided exercise because, like many Mason types, experienced body shaming first hand. After embarking on various diets her weight finally reached and acceptable normal at the age of 16, but, due to life stresses, peaked at 23 stone and 6 pounds (149 kg) in her late 20’s. For 10 years she felt like she had lost herself and had no viable identity. The turning point came when she felt that she was experiencing heart failure at the age of 39 after climbing a regular flight of stairs. Funda set firm health goals, joined a gym, and started her intensive health journey. The initial battle was to find exercise clothing that would fit her 4 foot 11 inch (149 cm) frame and then making the conscious decision to avoid all eye contact when working out. Public fat shaming can be emotionally debilitating and derail good intentions, for even the most determined amongst us. The tragic loss of her mother saw an abrupt halt in her 2-year journey during which she’d successfully shed a staggering 10 stone 2 ounce (65 kg) – by means of exercise combined with sound, pertinent nutrition advice. Grief elicits powerful emotions that can derail even the mundane of daily tasks, let alone conscientious exercise and lifestyle choices. They say that time is a healer and Funda eventually resumed her health resolve, obtaining extensive personal training qualifications and embarking on a gruelling teaching and weekly personal training regime. This diminutive, highly motivated, single mother not only teaches 8 high intensity classes per week, she completes four training session for personal gain and can bench press a staggering 105 kg without any effort. Do not think that a vacation can interrupt her schedule, her choice of holiday destinations all include training facilities, and as a result Funda has shed an impressive 12 stone (77 kg) overall. As all Mason body types know, weight maintenance is a life long commitment.

The question that arises is, when, as a Mason type, you are looking for a personal trainer, who would be better qualified in understanding the uphill battle that you will be facing? Someone like Funda who faces similar challenges on a daily basis, or an equally qualified Fortnum, a generation or two younger than yourself?

With regards to the Fortnums amongst us, being slightly underweight has been associated with longevity and in the case of women it can be very protective post menopause. The crux of the debate is, whatever body shape your genetic make-up has gifted you, the onus falls on you to continue to exercise regularly, throughout your life and combine it with good nutrition to maximise positive health outcomes. We can argue that positive long-term health outcomes do not only befall those individuals that eat well and partake in exercise, however, overwhelming evidence shows that the benefits of good nutrition and exercise are irrefutable.

For an industry that values physical appearance over qualifications, experience, and practical application of knowledge, it seems that only the Fortnums of this world can prosper in the health and fitness trade without judgement or discrimination. Perhaps it is because we prefer to choose a trainer and nutrition expert who we would like to emulate. Conform to corporation stereotype and your website, blog, and facebook page attract lucrative advertising and your followers elevate you to cult status. Break the mould (pun intended) and you are cast aside like an imperfect fruit in the fresh produce aisle even though we all know that those imperfect fruits are often the tastiest.

You now have a better understanding of how your body composition and dietary and lifestyle choices interact and that new-found knowledge allows you to make informed decisions. You might decide that a doughnut and a latte constitutes a complete meal and that exercising is not feasible due to the demands of modern day life. Whatever you decide to incorporate or exclude in your daily life, be aware of the possible benefits and potential consequences. I continue to feed, exercise, and love my canine companions, Fortnum and Mason, equally for their only desire in life is to be the centre of my attention.

If unlike my pets you have a more extensive list of goals, take a moment to ponder the best options available to you and follow them with passion and conviction.

Photograph credit to Virginie Petorin at E5 Dog Photography