What Does Your Body Shape Say about Your Health?

Why Location Matters When It Comes to Stored Body Fat

Finding your body fat percentage can be an important first step in defining your health goals. However, the location where your body fat is stored is just as important. Discover how different body shapes reveal key information about your risk for disease.

Overweight woman, focus on her stomach on blue background
In terms of health and fitness, body shape and where fat is stored are both key indicators of future risk of disease. Photo by New Africa / Shutterstock
By Michael Ormsbee, Ph.D.Florida State University

Where You Store Your Fat Matters

Measuring your body fat percentage can help you assess your progress when working toward health and fitness goals. But this figure does not provide the whole picture.

It turns out that where you store your fat may be more important than how much fat you have. Typically, fat is stored either around your abdomen in an apple shape called android fat, or around your hips and buttocks, the typical pear shape called gynoid fat. Depending on where you store your fat, you can often predict your risk for future health complications.

The android or apple-shaped pattern of body fat indicates a lot of fat stored around your organs—visceral fat—in addition to fat underneath your skin—subcutaneous fat. This fat distribution is much more common in men and is associated with more disease risk than the pear-shape fat distributions.

Specifically, a central or android fat distribution can increase the likelihood of narrowed artery walls; high blood pressure; and abnormal blood lipids, glucose, and insulin.

The pear-shape or gynoid fat deposition is typically thought of as the female pattern of weight gain. Now, this may actually be protective against disease for women. However, after menopause, when estrogen production tapers off, women tend to shift more towards the android obesity that is associated with men.

Measuring the Body Shapes Linked with Fat Storage

Because of this relationship between disease and where fat is stored, measurements were developed for quickly and easily allowing physicians to crudely estimate body composition, as well as to determine the risk based on where fat is located.

This measurement is called your waist-to-hip ratio and your waist-and-hip circumferences. As the name implies, the size of your waist—the smallest part of your abdomen—in relation to your hips—the greatest protrusion from the buttocks—carefully paints the picture of your fat distribution.

A standardized set of values can identify your risk based on both measurements. For example, your disease risk increases with a total waist circumference measurement of more than 35 inches—or 88.9 centimeters—for women, and more than 40 inches—or 101.6 centimeters—for men.

Similarly, a waist-to-hip ratio of greater than 0.86 for women or greater than 0.95 for men indicates an increased risk for disease. Having a waist-to-hip ratio of one or above, meaning a bigger belly than buttocks, gives you the apple shape.

In both cases, improvements in body composition are recommended to avoid these associated health problems.

Place your measuring tape in the right place to get an accurate value.

“As one of my professors once told me, your waist is the first part of you that enters the room,” said Dr. Michael Ormsbee, Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences at Florida State University. “All too often, I’ll see people measuring their waist and hips after moving and shifting their fat around to try to get a healthier profile. While this is interesting to watch, it does you no favors to have an inaccurate measurement.”

Other Categories of Body Shape

Another way to describe body shape is according to somatotype or physique shape. The three clearly defined shapes include:

  • Ectomorphs: The shape that is associated with long distance runners or basketball players, who are naturally thin with longer limbs and smaller joints;
  • Mesomorphs: The shape that is naturally muscular with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, like Serena Williams; and
  • Endomorphs: The shape that is round and soft with thicker joints, like Oprah Winfrey.

Most people can identify with one of the three categories, even if they are a hybrid of two groups. Just keep in mind that your natural body shape may be hiding or morphed by years of beating up your body with excess calories, or on the other hand, years of dedicated exercise to change your body composition.

Regardless, these body shapes are correlated with certain levels of fat mass and muscle mass, and knowing which category you fall into can help you set realistic goals for body composition and performance.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Dr. Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his M.S. in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his Ph.D. in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 73 Articles
Kate is a freelance writer, novelist, and blogger living in L.A. She has been writing for the Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.