Do Some People Get in Shape Easier Than Others?

From the WebMD Archives

By Tom DiChiara

The Rumor: Some (lucky) people have an easier time getting buff

Perhaps you're putting in long hours at the gym, logging mile after mile on the treadmill, and doing crunches like it's your second job. All you want is to have Ryan Gosling's abs and the aerobic prowess of Geoffrey Mutai (you know, the guy who's won the past two New York City Marathons). That's not too much to ask, right? There's just one tiny problem: You're not exactly seeing results commensurate with all that hard work. Could it be harder for you to get fit than it is for them?

The Verdict: Yes, it is easier for some people to get into shape than others

Unfortunately, there's a reason why the Mutais and Goslings of the world can reach these exceptional physical peaks, while many other people struggle just to maintain weight or shave a few seconds off their 5K personal record. Plain and simple, some people do have an easier time getting into shape.

"It's unfortunate, but different people respond differently to exercise," says exercise physiologist Dan Zeman, MS, who has worked with individuals running the gamut from average Joes to NBA and NFL athletes to three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond. "People who are intrinsic athletes are like intrinsic singers or artists -- they're really gifted people, so they respond differently to exercise. There's a reason some people are out there running a marathon in five and a half hours, while others are running 2:08. And it's not because the five-and-a-half-hour people want to enjoy the scenery."

A 2011 study backs this up. In it, scientists measured the effects of a 21-week exercise program on 175 previously sedentary adults, with some subjects undertaking a combined strength-and-endurance regimen and others focusing on either strength or endurance training. The participants' responses to exercise were all over the place, with some experiencing an eight percent decline in overall fitness and others showing a 42 percent improvement.

Zeman points to basic genetics and body types as the reason for this disparity. "We used to call the body types 'ectomorphs,' 'mesomorphs' and 'endomorphs,'" he says. "There's a classic muscular guy [mesomorph], this chubbier guy [endomorph] and this thin distance-runner guy [ectomorph]." Depending on physiological makeup and body type, people are usually better suited to some forms of exercise than others. For example, ectomorphs tend to excel at endurance sports, while mesomorphs and endomorphs will perform better in shorter-duration power endeavors.

Of course, none of this means that anyone should give up on working out. "Everyone should be involved in a cardiovascular program," says Zeman. "It's just that not everyone will have the same degree or percentage of improvement."

So the question you have to ask yourself is this: What is your objective when you exercise? "If it's to be active and improve your health, then find an activity that you can tolerate and enjoy, and do that," says Zeman. If your goal is to get into peak shape for an event, that's great too -- just realize that you won't be able to maintain that same fitness level year-round. "The guy who has the world record in the 10K can't go out and run that time every day for a year," Zeman notes. "He has to build up to that, peak for that, and then he takes an off-season."

Whatever your reason for exercising, Zeman cautions against overtraining just to burn off extra calories. "There's a benefit to doing 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity, and there's a benefit to doing 45 minutes," he says. "But I would hate the idea that someone's spending an hour seven days a week doing steady-state cardio workouts just to eat more. The extra duration increases the risk of overuse injuries, and the risk of boredom and fatigue."