Is Fit and Fat a Thing?

Here we go again!  Yet another study trying to figure out what is more important, being thin or being fit.

Last month, The New York Times published a summary of a new study by Dr. Glenn Gaesser, a professor of physiology at Arizona State University.  Dr. Gaesser’s expertise is on the effects of physical activity on health and body composition.  Some of his earlier studies focused on obese people, with significant health problems, like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol. The obese individuals in his studies were all able to better their situations whether they lost weight or not.

But we’re still asking – what’s more important, weight loss or exercise?

A little bit of history

Years back, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, under the direction of Dr. Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina, began the controversy.

The study showed that people who are overweight or obese but fit, have a lower mortality risk than those of normal weight with low fitness levels.

According to Blair’s study, those in the lowest fifth, in terms of fitness, had a death rate four times higher than participants ranking in the top fifth.  Dr. Blair states, “Being fit provides protection against mortality in these men and women 60 and older, whether they’re normal weight, overweight, or obese.”

In another study by Lee, Blair, and Jackson several years prior, 21,925 men of all shapes and sizes were assessed and monitored for eight years.  The study concluded that men who were fit and fat, actually had a lower mortality rate than unfit, sedentary men of normal weight.

Contradicting research

Research tracking the health of more than 2,500 British men and women for two decades found that half the people initially considered “healthy obese” wound up sliding into poor health as years passed.

Lead researcher Joshua Bell, a doctoral student in University College London’s department of epidemiology and public health says, “Healthy obesity is something that’s a phase rather than something that’s enduring over time. It is important to have a long-term view of healthy obesity, and to bear in mind the long-term tendencies. As long as obesity persists, health tends to decline. It does seem to be a high-risk state.”

In fact, when researchers continued to follow the study participants, findings suggested that obese people will eventually develop risk factors such as high blood sugar and bad cholesterol. These types of risk factors lead to chronic illness and death. “I have very seldom seen people who are obese for the long-term not have a condition that requires treatment.”  Bell said. As such, people who are obese should try to lose weight, even if they currently don’t have any risk factors.

Research scientist Tim Crowe says that research is increasingly finding that “healthy obesity” is likely a myth.  Healthy obesity may be more a phase that a person goes through on their way to poor health.  Similarly, this does not mean that all thin people are healthy.  Advice on following healthy lifestyle habits applies to everyone, no matter what their weight. 

Putting things in perspective

Now let’s sort this all out.

Honestly, the whole question of “what’s more important” is not in any way going to determine what is best for our health.  There is a bigger picture here.

Normal weight is important for health and longevity. Exercise is important for health and longevity and there a numerous studies proving both.  We need both and more! To maintain good health and quality of life requires dedication to multiple areas.

The quality of the food we eat is just as important as the number on the scale.  Losing weight must be done through a healthy diet. Exercise is surely important, but you don’t have to do intense exercise or join a gym to benefit.  How is your sleeping and stress management doing?  Are you using substances like tobacco, alcohol, or drugs?

Doing what’s right

The time has come for all of us to step back and see the bigger picture of health!

  1. Keep your BMI (body mass index) below 25 and preferable 24 or less
  2. Eat a plant-strong diet with a lot of variety.
  3. Keep animal proteins and dairy very low, and eliminate junk food
  4. Exercise! Do something aerobic, like brisk walking 30 minutes a day. Stretch daily and include some resistant training 2-3x per week.
  5. Do not smoke. Keep alcohol minimal, if at all, and don’t use other substances.
  6. SLEEP! It’s more important than you think. 7-9 hours per night is pretty essential.
  7. Stress management is critical. Learn how to reduce, eliminate, and control stresses.

Instead of comparisons, let’s look at the bigger picture. Let’s learn about and execute these areas of lifestyle medicine to the best of our ability. May we all see improvement in health, fitness and disease prevention and reversal.  It will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”


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