How To Get In Shape As A Petite Woman

If you’re a petite woman – that is, you’re 5’4” or shorter – then you’ve probably noticed that common fitness and health advice doesn’t take you into account.

By Jaimee Marshall7 min read
shutterstock 1547901917 (1)

It’s tailored to bodies that are much taller than yours, and there’s an important reason why that difference matters. Taller women have higher metabolic rates, which means they naturally have faster metabolisms and require more calories just to maintain basic bodily functions.

A taller woman will burn hundreds more calories per day simply by existing. This unfortunate reality means that tall women can eat more food than us without gaining weight unless we actively take steps to even the playing field by increasing our activity or altering our body composition. This is why so many popular dieting fads and exercise advice can be counterproductive for petite women, as they often completely ignore the fact that petites have lower caloric needs. As a woman who is under 5’2” and who has experienced both being overweight when I was in high school and losing well over 20 pounds, I want to help out my fellow shorties with some information that just may make the difference for your fitness goals.

Why Petites Gain Weight So Easily: Low BMRs

Do you feel like your tall friends can eat so much more than you and stay skinny, while you practically look at a slice of pizza and gain several pounds? Yeah, I’ve been there. The truth is that you have lower caloric needs as a short person because it takes less energy to keep you alive. This is something known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR). It’s the number of calories burned to keep your organs functioning without you doing anything. We’re talking, this is what your body would burn if you were in a coma, genuinely not even blinking. 

We need less energy intake as short women, but that doesn’t always mean that we have fewer cravings. In the modern world, surrounded by a sea of restaurants, 24-hour fast food, and the ability to summon takeout directly to your door, many of us are overeating. An average height woman has a BMR of around 1,400 calories and taller women can have BMRs that are much higher, around 1,700 calories burned per day before factoring in any exercise or additional movement. Now here’s the bad news for short women: Most of us have a BMR of around just 1,200 calories per day. I know, I can hear the sad violin music playing, too. The good thing is, we aren’t all comatose or laying in bed all day, so we’re burning more than this amount each day just by getting out of bed and walking around. However, if you work an office job or live a mostly sedentary lifestyle, it won’t be by much.

The other harsh reality check is that your BMR accounts for 60-70% of your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Your TDEE is the number of calories you burn in 24 hours, taking into account all forms of energy expenditure. You can, however, increase your BMR by altering your body composition and putting on more lean muscle. Muscle tissue burns more calories at rest than fat, which means a short woman who has more muscle will have a higher BMR than another short woman who has less muscle. In some cases, a muscular and active short woman can have a higher BMR than a taller woman. This is because height is only one aspect of your BMR.

Breaking Down TDEE: Why More Movement Is More Powerful Than Exercise

Your TDEE, or total calories burned in a 24-hour cycle, combines a few measurements. The first is NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. This is how many calories you burn from any movement that isn’t intentional exercise. Walking, fidgeting, and vacuuming all contribute to your NEAT. Even though you aren’t doing an intense workout, any sort of movement is going to burn calories. This might seem insignificant, but this is a great way to increase your TDEE without expending a huge amount of energy at the gym, and I’ll explain why in a moment. 

Your BMR accounts for 60-70% of the total number of calories you burn in 24 hours.

The next component of your TDEE is your activity through exercise. Even though people are constantly harping on about needing to exercise to lose weight, this only accounts for about 5% of your TDEE. Non-exercise movement accounts for up to 15%. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of exercise, but it’s good to keep your expectations grounded. Slaving away at the gym for one hour a day isn’t as efficient as moving more throughout the day. Aim to increase your overall activity alongside exercise. Purchasing a Fitbit or downloading a step counter onto your phone can encourage you to move more. 

The final component of TDEE is the thermic effect of food. The thermic effect of food is how much energy it takes for your body to break down the three different macronutrients that you consume through food – protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Of the three, protein has the highest thermic effect, meaning if you eat a high protein diet, more calories from what you eat will be burned compared to carbs or fat. 20-30% of calories from protein are broken down during digestion. Compare this to the thermic effect of carbs at 5-10% and fat which is only 0-3%. Eating a high protein diet not only promotes satiation and preserves muscle tissue, but it also helps you burn more calories. 

To Lose Weight, You Need To Be in a Caloric Deficit

It can be relieving to realize that weight loss is simple. The truth is, the hardest part is taking responsibility for your physique and level of fitness. The only difficult thing about weight loss is holding yourself accountable, but the process is straightforward. You need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight. This means you’re taking in fewer calories than you’re burning. You can achieve a calorie deficit in three different ways: through diet, exercise, or a combination of both. This last option is the sweet spot that I highly recommend for petite women because it makes achieving a calorie deficit so much more attainable and less painful. It’s what works best for me, but you should do whatever is easiest and, more importantly, most sustainable for you. 

There are 3,500 calories in one pound of fat, so common dieting advice is to reduce your total calories by 500 per day to lose one pound per week. This is perfectly attainable for a moderate height or tall woman. However, reducing your calories by 500 per day for a petite woman would be placing her into a problematic zone. Most petite women will have a TDEE of about 1,400 calories. Reducing this by 500 per day means eating less than 1,000 calories and this sets you up for failure for several reasons. One, this isn’t enough calories. You will struggle to get enough nutrients, you will feel tired all the time, and your metabolism will also be slower. You want to avoid an extremely low-calorie diet because this will slow your metabolism, making it difficult to avoid gaining weight once you stop restricting. Don’t ever go below 1,200 calories, as this will negatively affect your metabolism and health.

Instead, you can try a moderate reduction in calories such as a 200 to 250 calorie deficit from your diet alongside regular exercise. A high-intensity workout four times a week will accelerate weight loss. When you aren’t exercising, I highly encourage you to keep your body moving by going for walks, hiking, doing chores, or anything else that keeps you on your feet throughout the day. When it comes to choosing what type of exercise to do, there’s a big debate about whether cardio or strength training is better. The truth is, both have their advantages, but you should choose whichever is more enjoyable to you. Cardio burns more calories during the actual exercise and improves heart health. Comparatively, strength training when paired with a high protein diet will encourage muscle growth. 

Weight training is often hailed by some as necessary for petite women to lose weight because it causes you to burn calories for up to 72 hours. Muscle is also metabolically active tissue so it requires more calories to maintain than fat. While even a small increase in your metabolic rate can help you maintain or lose weight, it’s more sustainable to choose any form of exercise that you’re most likely to stick with. I like to do a combination of cardio and strength training. If you hate running, then for goodness’ sake, don’t do it! Likewise, if you don’t like lifting weights, find something else. If you’re into pilates, body weight exercises, and yoga, try a program like 28. There is something for everyone and since you can’t spot reduce fat, you might as well do any exercise that gets your heart rate up and that you look forward to each day. 

That being said, I would recommend you incorporate some form of resistance training into your routine because maintaining your muscle mass or even increasing it will prevent your BMR from going too low as you lose weight. The leaner we get, the fewer calories we need, also known as metabolic adaptation. This is why it’s so difficult to lose the last five pounds. This is where muscle can be your friend. 

Track Your Calories

With the basics out of the way, let’s talk implementation. For my weight loss goals, MyFitnessPal was a saving grace. I have a really hard time staying in a deficit through intuitive eating alone. Since petites don’t have much room for error, I find that when I don’t explicitly track my calories through a tracking app like MyFitnessPal, I’m always underestimating how much I’m eating, even when making my best effort. You would be surprised how many hidden calories are lurking in flavored beverages, a single tablespoon of olive oil, or the worst offender and my kryptonite: condiments. Using an app like MyFitnessPal takes all of the work out of calorie counting. 

Don’t ever go below 1,200 calories, as this will negatively affect your metabolism and health.

All you need to do is scan the barcode of foods that you eat or search for foods that you’re eating in their extensive database, log the amount you ate, and it will keep track of the calories for you. When you plug in your metrics and your weight loss goals, the app will also help create a plan for you so you understand how much you need to eat each day to achieve those goals in a certain amount of time. For the best accuracy, you can invest in a small food scale that will ensure that you’re not underestimating the amount you’re eating. This is especially important for calorically dense foods like peanut butter. 

I know tracking calories and weighing your food is bound to be triggering for people with a history of eating disorders, so I feel the need to address this. I don’t recommend that you do anything that will put you into an unsafe mindset. You should repair your relationship with food before following any of these tips, as restricting food intake and rituals related to restricting food intake may be dangerous for those with an eating disorder. Please seek professional help if this applies to you. Calorie tracking is a perfectly sustainable and useful tool for petites who want to know how much food they’re truly consuming but tread carefully, as becoming too obsessed with calories or trying to see how little you can eat each day is a symptom of disordered eating, and I do not encourage that at all. This is just what has worked for me personally and has never caused me to feel distressed. If you have a more obsessive personality, it may be a better idea to only track your food for a few days to get an idea of how much you’re currently eating so you can then mindfully eat less. 

Another tip is to not record calories burned through exercise. Studies show these are highly inaccurate and will only lead to you eating back all of your calories. If you’re exercising while dieting, you may need to eat a little more on days that you’re especially active, but I would suggest that you try to stay around your maintenance calories, if not in a deficit on those days. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that you burned a ton of calories and can eat in a surplus when you may have only burned a quarter of the calories you thought you did. This will leave you sorely disappointed, as I can assure you that unless you ran a marathon or you’re on your feet for nine hours a day, you’re not burning that many calories. 

When reducing your calorie intake through diet, make sure to get plenty of protein. This will keep you full for longer and prevent you from snacking throughout the day. I used to eat a diet that was basically entirely carbohydrates and would wonder why I was always hungry. It’s fine to eat carbs, just pair them with a source of protein. Another great trick to eat less but feel satisfied is to increase the volume of foods you’re eating. Rather than thinking of what you can subtract from your plate, ask yourself what you can add. Add some berries, nuts, and seeds to your oatmeal. Pair your meal with a side salad or soup. Add cruciferous vegetables to your plate. While these foods barely add to the total calories of your meal, they mentally make you feel like you’re eating much more, leaving you more satiated instead of starving. Dieting doesn’t need to be so miserable.

Closing Thoughts

It’s true that it’s more difficult for petite women to lose weight due to our slower metabolisms and low-calorie needs. However, this slight disadvantage doesn’t need to hold you back from reaching your fitness goals. Whether you’re interested in maintaining or losing weight, just be mindful of your BMR and your TDEE. You can easily access this information by using online calculators and you can track your calories using an app like MyFitnessPal. Whether you want to maintain a deficit through diet, exercise, or both, as long as you’re burning more calories than you’re eating in a day, the weight will come off. It may just be a little slower compared to your tall friends. 

Don’t miss anything! Sign up for our weekly newsletter and get curated content weekly!