The need for personalised training
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
Choosing a first blog article could never be easy, so I chose to write about something that I’ve found intriguing for a while now; personalisation. For my dissertation which I wrote at the beginning of the year, I focussed on aspects of personalised nutrition, so a lot of what I know about this area came from a nutrient point of view. However, the ageing module that I took at the end of last year started to introduce the idea that not everyone is the same, and thus, we shouldn’t all train the same way either. Listening to The Food Medic’s podcast with Dr Stacy Sims, ‘Women are not small men’, inspired me to not only put words to paper and think in more depth about why there’s a need for personalised training, but try to apply this to my own fitness journey and others that I help along the way going forward.
Personalisation seeks to tailor services and lifestyle actions to your individual needs and requirements, with the potential for different factors such as genetics, age, gender, biomarkers, physiological responses and everyday circumstances to be considered. Whilst it unsurprisingly carries a greater cost than generic advice, it has the potential to deliver much more effective results given that we can all react differently to the same stimulus.
Different individuals respond differently to the same form of exercise. For example, one study found that 6 weeks of HIIT training had favourable effects on the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in some participants, yet in others, there was no effect, suggesting the need for personalised exercise regimes in order to elicit a beneficial response for health (Higgins et al., 2015). There are multiple levels of personalisation that could be applied to training. In-depth analysis by companies such as DNAFit aims to obtain a ‘smarter, easier and more effective solution to health and fitness, entirely unique to your DNA profile.’ This level of personalisation can be extremely valuable, yet perhaps it isn’t entirely necessary to analyse your health and fitness on such a granular level based on your genetic information. Rather, focussing on physiological factors, which are things such as your age, gender and body type, and tailoring exercise programmes to this can help to create greater improvements than a standardised training programme could generate.
Fitness tends to decline as we get older due to the effects that ageing has on the body. Older individuals have a lower VO2 max (aerobic capacity) and maximum heart rate than younger counterparts, and they also lose bone mineral density (BMD) and muscle mass. Loss of BMD is correlated with an increased fracture risk, hence, it is vital that we are able to counter this with exercise-based interventions aiming to build up BMD. A lot of people think that as you age, you should reduce the amount of load-bearing exercise in order to protect your joints, however, when we consider BMD, only load-bearing exercise is effective in restoring BMD, making it important that older individuals lift weights too, not just the young. It’s also harder for older individuals to build muscle due to a phenomenon called anabolic blunting, which means that a stimulus that resulted in muscle building no longer causes the same extent of response, meaning that older individuals require a greater period of time to build the same amount of muscle (Cuthbertson, 2005).
The same exercises that suit males and work effectively for them don’t necessarily impact females in the same way. Women are, to quote Dr Stacy Sims, a leading researcher in women’s exercise, ‘small men,’ and thus, the approach taken by women to exercise and nutrition should not be built so heavily on the exercise principles that men follow. Linking to age, the loss of BMD in women is accelerated by the loss of oestrogen post-menopause, making resistance and load-bearing exercise particularly vital for women. The composition of women’s muscles, which have increased numbers of type I endurance fibres compared to men, who have a greater proportion of type II fast-twitch fibres, mean that women are proportionally better at endurance exercise than men, and during aerobic exercise, women rely on fat as a fuel source, whereas men are more inclined to burn carbohydrates (Sims, 2016; Miller et al., 1993). Another physiological factor that needs to be considered for exercising women is the Q angle, which is the angle between your quadriceps and patella tendon. In women, wider hips for childbirth mean that this angle is greater, which leaves women at a greater risk of both acute and chronic knee problems (Horton and Hall, 1989). This makes core and hip stability vital components of a women’s training programme. This is a non-exhaustive list of the physiological differences between men and women, and comes before the role of hormones and the menstrual cycle is even considered, proving that women and men simply cannot be considered one and the same when it comes to exercise.
We also have to learn to work with our body shapes, rather than against them. There are three primary somatotypes (body types); ectomorphs, which are characterised by their light build and long limbs, think long distance runner; mesomorphs, who often have a long torso and ability to build muscle, often power or speed athletes; and endomorphs, who often have a rounder body and higher percentage of body fat. Each somatotype responds differently to different exercises, and as such, will do better in one than the other. For example, endomorphs might struggle to build muscle through resistance training, but mesomorphs will often thrive off this and high-intensity interval training (Sims, 2016). Somatotype therefore is yet another factor that means that generic training might not be the best approach for everyone to take.
So, now you know a bit more about personalisation and I hope you can see why I find it so intriguing too. Given that it’s a relatively new venture, there is still some way for the science to go and the price of some personalised services to fall, however, as awareness of and evidence for its importance continues to grow, it’s possible to envisage a future whereby standard advice and practice is personalised. A generic, one-size fits all approach only serves the needs of individuals to a certain extent; we must take account of physiological factors and lifestyle requirements to create a more personalised approach to exercise in order to ensure that we are able to maximise the improvements in health and fitness that physical activity is capable of producing.
Dr Stacy Sims, ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life
The Food Medic Podcast – Women are not Small Men (https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-food-medic/id1397209446?i=1000476111907)
Cuthbertson, D., Smith, K., Babraj, J., Leese, G., Waddell, T., Atherton, P., et al. (2005). Anabolic signaling deficits underlie amino acid resistance of wasting, aging muscle. FASEB Journal : Official Publication of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 19(3), 422-424. doi:04-2640fje [pii]
Higgins, T. P., Baker, M. D., Evans, S. A., Adams, R. A., & Cobbold, C. (2015). Heterogeneous responses of personalised high intensity interval training on type 2 diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease risk in young healthy adults. Clinical Hemorheology and Microcirculation, 59(4), 365-377. doi:10.3233/CH-141857 [doi]
Horton, M. G., & Hall, T. L. (1989). Quadriceps femoris muscle angle: Normal values and relationships with gender and selected skeletal measures. Physical Therapy, 69(11), 897-901. doi:10.1093/ptj/69.11.897 [doi]
Miller, A. E. J., MacDougall, J. D., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Sale, D. G. (1993). Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 66(3), 254-262. doi:10.1007/BF00235103
Sims, S. (2016). Roar. United States of America. Rodale