Can you be Fat and Be Fit?

Dune Training
Taro Taylor via Compfight

It has long been said by medical professionals and many health advocates, this Dog included, that hauling around a few extra pounds increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other “metabolic conditions. For the most part that is true, but I was recently made aware of a few studies that seem to back up a growing movement in the medical community that says some people can actually be fat – and FIT!

Now hold on, before you say “Woo-hoo” and run for that box of Twinkies, listen up. Research clearly supports that being overweight is a major health risk, and obesity has been shown to contribute to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and many types of cancer. What this new research is trying to do, is change the rampant perception in this country that if you see a person who is overweight, you automatically also assume that they are “unfit.” That is just not necessarily true. I have known many overweight people that are fit, “strong as an ox,” if you will pardon the pun, and many skinny people who are sickly and unfit. The point is, “fitness” or health for that matter, should not be gauged strictly by the numbers on the scale.

Fitness vs. Fatness

Obesity researchers are now debating the relative importance of “fatness vs. fitness” when it comes to determining the overall health of an overweight person.

A relatively small but growing group of scientists have been putting conventional wisdom to the test. These researchers argue that it is possible to be both fat and fit, and advocate that “fitness” is a more accurate indicator of true overall health, and future health risks, than body weight alone.

The first major study to look at the fatness versus fitness debate was conducted by the Cooper Institute, a nonprofit fitness organization in Dallas.  In a study of 22,000 men ages 30–83, the researchers measured subjects’ body mass index,(BMI) — the proportion of fat to muscle — and put them through treadmill tests. Not all those who were technically overweight had difficulty on the treadmill. In fact several of them had less difficulties, and showed more strength and endurance (i.e. fitness) then these with BMIs in the “normal” range. The scientists concluded that if you are “fit,” in that case being overweight doesn’t necessarily increase your mortality risk.

A new study just published this month in the European Heart Journal echoed the Cooper Institute’s conclusions. In this study, the researchers looked at more than 40,000 adults. Not all of those who were technically obese, based on BMI, had a greater risk of heart disease or early death from other conditions normally associated with being overweight, if they were “otherwise healthy.” The researchers defined “otherwise healthy” in terms of cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and general fitness as indicated by how well their heart and lungs performed during strenuous exercise. As in the Cooper Institute study the European researchers concluded that these so-called “fat but fit” adults were no more likely to develop or die from heart disease or cancer than normal-weight individuals who could also be described as “fit.”

(Big) Bottom Line

So what does this all really mean? None of those who are suggesting the Fit but Fat model are saying that people who are trying to lose weight should give up on those goals. In fact, researchers say that individuals who struggle with weight and go on a fitness and diet regimen, and do not lose as much as they want, should be less hung up on “body image” and more concerned about total fitness. The bottom line is diet and exercise will always make a person “more fit” and be in better shape, no matter what “shape” they are in!

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