Caren Namenya Mulyanga
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Body fat, exercise, and fertility: how bodybuilding affects fertility

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Caren Namenya Mulyanga, fitness coach during her routine fitness session at Westlands Delta Chambers Afro fit gym on November 14, 2023. 

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

The year is 1980. Smartphones are an unheard of invention, the internet is a new phenomenon few understand or care about, and fax machines and telephone booths are the main communication devices.

Accomplished bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger has just retired from the sport after winning his seventh Mr Olympia title, and is now embarking on what will be a stellar film career.

On the sidelines of these developments, there is a new entrant into the bodybuilding scene – women. The Ohio Regional Women’s Physique Championship competition has been launched and for the first time, female weightlifters and bodybuilders are set to compete against each other in high heels and bikinis.

Just like Arnold, these women had achieved eye-catching physiques thanks to months of dieting and exercise, and were on stage to have their muscle definition, symmetry and physique presentation judged.

American Gina LaSpina won, and just like that, the idea that women could grow and develop muscles primarily for aesthetics was born, marking the beginning of women’s bodybuilding.

Much has changed over time, but female bodybuilding has remained a hotbed of gender-related controversy. Many of these controversies are pegged on misconceptions about female bodybuilding.

One such myth is that female bodybuilding cannot be done clean, suggesting that women cannot achieve the required muscle mass and definition naturally. In other words, they have to use steroids.

There is also the belief that female bodybuilders suffer from infertility and cannot have children. Three accomplished female bodybuilders speak out.

Farah Esmail, 51: Corporate lawyer and businesswoman

Farah Esmail

Farah Esmail.

Photo credit: Pool

Ms Esmail celebrated her 51st birthday this week and does not have children. The corporate lawyer however says this was her own decision and has nothing to do with her activities as a bodybuilder.

“Every culture has its myths and bodybuilding is no exception, but most myths about this sport are mere illusions. Many say that women in bodybuilding have issues conceiving…that’s a common misconception. I know of many female bodybuilders who have children. Look at Brazillian Angela Texeira. She is a two-time Ms Bikini Olympia champion (2017 and 2018), and has two children,” says Ms Email.

She however says that even at her age, she is looking forward to becoming a mother someday.

“I froze my eggs not because I am a bodybuilder and can’t conceive but because I was 37 and my marriage had ended yet I still wanted children someday. It was a kind of insurance policy,” she says.

Ms Esmail admits that due to the demands of the sport, it might be difficult for a woman to conceive, especially when preparing for a major competition.

“Bodybuilding is an extreme sport. There are elements of the sport that are not healthy. Ahead of any competition your fat levels have to drop quite low and some women will lose their period when that happens.

“When you are that lean, you don’t have enough fat in your body to hold a child. Besides, at that level, the hormonal changes in your body might not support conception. The good thing is that your body bounces back during the off-season because you go back to your normal routine that isn’t as extreme. And by the way, the body-building diet is actually good for fertility because one has to eat only super clean foods.”

Of all the challenges women like her face, body shaming is the one that annoys Ms Farah the most.

“I don’t like it when people say I look like a man. I don’t think I look like a man. What’s wrong with a woman having muscles? It is an anti-aging component and there is enough science to support this. Many women actually like lifting weights but they get scared by the idea that people will think they look like men,” she says.

Lucy Ndirangu, 29 Fitness coach

Lucy Ndirangu

Lucy Ndirangu is a fitness trainer and natural bodybuilder.

Photo credit: Pool

What began as a cancer scare is what got Ms Ndirangu to immerse herself in the world of fitness and bodybuilding. She says that she would make the same call if the clock was to rewind.

The bubbly fitness coach says bodybuilding has pushed her body to unimaginable extremes, but that the sport has also opened up a new world where she now competes in different countries across the world. She lives for her moments on the stage.

“My worries include losing my muscles or missing a chicken breast meal. Issues of infertility or the other misconceptions around this sport don’t bother me at all.

At 29, Ms Ndirangu feels she still has time to enjoy her youth, and a child will come when the time is right. What will the naysayers say then? She chuckles.

“I don’t have a child yet. Do I intend to have one? That’s personal but I don’t think it will be a problem when the right time comes. For now, I am enjoying the sport,” she says.

Lucy says she has grown accustomed to the boring and tiring compliment she gets quite often of, “You look like a man.” but the idea that female bodybuilders struggle with fertility is new to her.

“Where did this come from? If you are a natural bodybuilder like myself, it’s easier to conceive. The only time your fertility may be affected is maybe during the 12 weeks you take to prepare for a major contest, because then we adopt a strict diet and do very intense workouts that can destabilise hormones. Now that can make it hard to conceive. But during off-season, like now, I am absolutely healthy. Fertile, if you may. I can eat more calories, I hydrate and rest more,” she says.

Ms Ndirangu believes men get intimidated by her masculine physique, which is why some of them say women like her look like men.

“The thing is, we stand out. That’s for sure. Sometimes we have more muscles than some men so those who don’t understand what we do make those comments. I don’t know who said women can’t have muscles, it’s like a woman must always be chubby and soft. I don’t believe that.”

Ms Ndirangu insists there is no day a woman will ever look like a man, and it doesn’t matter how hard or heavy she lifts.

“For a woman to look like a man you will have to tamper with your hormones. Maybe take steroids or testosterone boosters and things like that, but a woman can never look like a man from training naturally, dieting and using legal supplements,” she says.

Ms Ndirangu made her debut in 2019 in the women’s bikini category. So far she has participated in 15 shows both locally and internationally.

“When I had the cancer scare, I lost so much weight and went from 85 kilograms to 50 within months, so when I was advised to take up exercise and change my diet, I jumped right into it. When I was introduced to bodybuilding, I didn’t think twice,”

That was while she was in campus. She discovered a growth inside her breasts that doctors thought was a tumour, but it wasn’t.

“The growth had been caused by hormonal imbalance because of the lifestyle I led then. You know on campus all you eat is junk food and have this sedentary lifestyle.”

Caren ‘Muldibo’ Namenya, 29. Accountant and fitness coach

Caren Mulyanga Namenya

Bodybuilder Caren Mulyanga Namenya engages in body stretches before a workout.

Photo credit: Pool

Muldibo has been competing since 2019 when she quit her accounting job and immersed herself into the world of fitness and bodybuilding.

Like many women in this sport, Caren has been told several times that she looks like a man due to her formidable physique and muscles.

“To many, women like me are intimidating with our physique, but that’s not my concern. I just want to be strong, stay healthy, encourage more women to lift weights, and to understand why they need muscles. You don’t have to be a bodybuilder but that doesn’t mean as a woman you shouldn’t have muscles. You are much healthier and fit when you have muscles,” she says.

The firstborn in a family of five siblings has become used to the myths and misconceptions on bodybuilding, and she says they no longer bother her.

Her greatest desire is to educate the public on what women’s bodybuilding is all about especially for a natural bodybuilder like her who is tested regularly before competing.

“That we use steroids and other hormone boosters is a very common stereotype. I understand the assumption that steroids are used especially by women in bodybuilding because it’s twice as hard for a woman to have well-defined muscles as a man, but not all women in this field use them.

“I work twice as hard and sometimes my diets go to the extreme just to have those muscles popping. I am a natural bodybuilder, I don’t juice, I just use the recommended supplements and diet. I have been tested severally by the Anti-Doping Agency in Kenya. Also, you can never compete under International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation (IFBB) without being tested,” she clarifies.

Caren Namenya Mulyanga

Caren Namenya Mulyanga, fitness coach during her routine fitness session at Westlands Delta Chambers Afro fit gym on November 14, 2023. 

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

The extreme diet and workouts Caren is talking about often include cutting down on sugar, going low on carbohydrates, and avoiding salt at all cost to reduce water retention in the body. With less water in the body, it is easier for the muscles to show and achieve the required definition.

Although she admits that some women use steroids to build muscle mass, she believes that female bodybuilders are among the world’s healthiest human beings, and as such, their fertility levels can’t be in question.

“It can be difficult for a woman to get pregnant during peak season because of the conditions we adopt to get an edge over competitors. Imagine a body that is deprived of water retention, that is low in glucose and has been subjected to strenuous workouts. Are those conditions conducive to conceive or carry a pregnancy? The good thing is, when the season is over and everything is back to normal, the female bodybuilder is the most fertile human being ever.”