What Your Body Type Can Reveal About Your Health

Where you carry extra weight may put you at increased risk for heart disease, cancer, and other serious diseases.

By Deborah Long

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If you’re like most Americans, you may be carrying extra weight; fully two-thirds of us do. Where you pack on the extra pounds depends on factors like heredity and lifestyle – and the location of that weight may have a serious affect on your health.

What Shape Are You?

Some of us – the pears – carry fat in the hips and thighs, while others – the apples – will put on weight in our upper bodies, particularly around the waist or belly. Men are more likely to be apples, sporting that “spare tire” or “beer belly,” while women often are pears, putting on weight in the hips, thighs and buttocks. Then there's the contingent who gains excess weight evenly on their frames. In women, this is what we call the classic hourglass shape; for men, we use the more masculine “rectangle” as a description.

Why Does Shape Matter?

It’s important to know which body type you are, because your health risks vary accordingly. A quick look in the mirror should tell you whether you’re an apple or a pear, but if you’re not sure, you can ask your doctor next time you have a physical.

Michael Jensen, M.D., an endocrinologist with the Mayo Clinic, is an expert on the health risks associated with excess weight. He has spent fully three decades studying the risks overweight patients face and is considered a pioneer of correlating how body type – or where excess weight is carried – relates to the likelihood of developing various diseases. His research has led him to conclude that there is no question that one body type is especially at risk for life-threatening conditions.

Eyes on the Apples

Maybe you’ve heard the joke: “I am in shape. Round is a shape!” Laughter may be the best medicine in some cases, but the truth is that extra weight isn’t a laughing matter – especially if you carry the weight around your waist or in your belly.

“The bigger your waist in relation to your hips,” says Dr. Jensen, “the higher your risk. It’s not a subtle correlation at all.” Waist fat in particular is associated with all-around mortality, and this puts apples at higher risk for a host of serious illnesses, including:

  • Heart disease: Waist fat is three times more strongly associated with heart disease than BMI (Body Mass Index). Again, this means that where you carry weight matters.
  • Cancers: Apples also have a higher risk for developing many types of cancer. Colon cancer, breast cancer, and uterine cancer all are more likely to afflict apples than pears. 
  • Diabetes: Insulin resistance is more common in those who carry weight around their middles, as well, so it’s not surprising that these individuals also have a higher risk of developing full-blown diabetes. 

Peering at the Pears

Pear-shaped folks may hate their “thunder thighs” or the “love handles” on their hips, but the bottom line – no pun intended – is that they don’t face the same magnitude of risk as their apple-shaped peers. But that doesn’t mean they should breathe a sigh of relief and crack open a cold one to celebrate.

While pears are not as at-risk for weight-aggravated heart disease, cancers, and diabetes, anyone who is obese or overweight still bears more risk than those who are at an ideal weight. 

Carrying extra weight in your hips, butt, and thighs automatically puts you at a higher risk for:

  • Varicose veins: Heredity is a factor where varicose veins are concerned, but carrying extra weight puts added pressure on the veins, which can cause the problems associated with varicose veins, such as aching legs and discoloration.
  • Degenerative knee and joint diseases: Excess weight means your knees and joints wear down more quickly. Remember, your knees bear the brunt of your body weight with every step you take, and every extra pound you carry equates to roughly three pounds of added pressure on your knees. So to your knees, 30 extra pounds will feel like 90.

Some studies suggest that you also may be more likely to suffer memory loss and cognitive disorders than those who put on weight in their waistline first.

What If Your Extra Weight Is Distributed Evenly?

If you’re a feminine hourglass or a masculine rectangle, you still can’t count on a clean bill of health.

“The truth is that total weight matters, “ cautions Dr. Jensen. “Excess weight is a health risk no matter where you carry it. I worry most about my apple-shaped patients, because they are at higher risk for the most life-threatening conditions. But the higher your weight, the more stress there is on your system, and the more likely you are to experience problems.”

Doctor's Orders

The good news is that you have some control over how much extra weight you carry, and even where you are likely to carry it. 

“For apples especially, it is urgent to pay attention to lifestyle and make changes.” Dr. Jensen points out that while heredity and gender both play some part in whether you will be an apple or a pear, there are lifestyle factors at play, too. Cigarette smoking and drinking alcohol both can lead to dangerous belly fat. Adopting a healthy lifestyle that eliminates these obvious risks can go a long way to safeguarding your health.

Finally, says Dr. Jensen, “The most important advice I can offer to anyone – overweight or not – is simple: Keep walking! Really, I can’t stress this enough. Being sedentary encourages that accumulation of belly fat.” Walking can help you to reach or to maintain a healthy weight, no matter what shape you may be in.

 

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