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Can You Be Fat But Fit?

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New research shows you can't judge a person's fitness by looks alone. Here, the surprising new thinking on size and exercise.

Your Weight and Fitness

There are two large women who've been in boot camp with me for years. They almost never miss a class and never take it easy. Yet as I've lunged, squatted, and planked alongside them nearly daily, I'm ashamed to admit that one question has occasionally bounced around my brain: With all that exercise, after all this time, why aren't these women in better shape?

Then came the 2012 Olympic Games. The world was poised to witness its most formidable female athletes lock horns in London. And what did we hear? Slams against Australian swimmer Leisel Jones, declaring the eight-time medalist fat and thus unfit to represent her country. Cheap shots about muffin tops and saddlebags on the British women's beach volleyball team. And tweets about British swimmer Rebecca Adlington's physique that became so vicious, she dropped off Twitter altogether. "These women made it to the Olympics, for god's sake. How unfit could they be?" I found myself ranting at the TV.

Then I thought, sheepishly, about the women at boot camp. It became clear to me that the knee-jerk connection I and apparently others might make between how much a person weighs and how physically fit and healthy she is needed some serious reevaluation.

The New Thinking on Weight

Recent research suggests that being overweight or even obese may not, in and of itself, be the health threat we think it is. A 2012 study from the National Cancer Institute found that moderately obese people actually lived about 3.1 years longer than normal-weight women and men. Another study, published in the European Heart Journal, showed that when obese people are metabolically healthy -- which means their blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and other indicators fall within a healthy range -- they are at no greater risk of dying from heart disease or cancer than those who are of normal weight.

"What we're learning is that a body that exercises regularly is generally a healthy body, whether that body is fat or thin," says Glenn Gaesser, PhD, a professor of exercise and wellness at Arizona State University and the author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health. Case in point, the metabolically healthy participants in the European Heart Journal study were generally more physically fit than their obese peers. "The message should really be that if you are exercising regularly, you shouldn't necessarily be looking at the scale to determine how healthy or fit you are," Gaesser says.

There are a multitude of reasons that movement is such strong medicine: Because muscles are the largest consumers of sugar in the body, increased muscle mass reduces the chance of excess sugar accumulating in the blood, which is essentially what diabetes is. Regular physical activity reduces inflammation in the cardiovascular system and affects the secretion of clotting hormones, allowing blood to flow more easily to muscles and preventing the formation of deadly clots. Moderate exercise (at least 150 minutes a week of medium-intensity exercise like walking) combined with diet changes can also reduce the amount of potentially deadly fat in the liver. And study after study has shown that overweight and obese people who work out can reap such benefits and improve their metabolic health even if they don't shed a pound.

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vanessaj1988 wrote:

This doesn't really prove anything because the studies done were on MODERATELY obese people. Bodybuilders, football backs, and other athletes would all be considered moderately obese but they also have a good deal of muscle. Bodyfat% and LBM are much better measures than BMI.

8/13/2014 02:10:08 PM Report Abuse
lipedemafitness wrote:

I have Lipedema and when I was 1st diagnosed I was told "nothing you can do" - no diet, no exercise will help. I listened for years & became depressed, obese, and immobile (unable to stand or walk). About 2 years ago I changed my diet to zone & began modified CrossFit. I lost 60lbs and 30in off my legs. I'm not cured, I'm still obese - but I can flip a 300lb tractor tire & I can walk a 5K. Metabolically, I am very healthy. The biggest obstacle I face is finding workout clothes. Thank you.

8/11/2014 09:31:13 AM Report Abuse
Born2lbFat wrote:

I have a medical condition called Lipedema, it is the abnormal accumulation of adipose tissue, aka fat, in the hips, thighs, butt, and sometimes upper arms. Lipedema fat doesn't respond to diet and exercise. It's actually more common condition, just under diagnosed. The picture used for this article is a great visual for stage one, where the lower half of the body is larger than the upper body. I have a more advance stage of Lipedema, my BMI is morbidly obese, however metabolically I am healthy.

8/10/2014 06:49:01 PM Report Abuse
stacyjahn wrote:

The article has some good info, but the recommendations for plus-sized athletic wear at the end of the article are pretty disappointing. barely has anything above a size 16,Zella @ Norstrom and have nothing about size 18, and TeamEstrogen does not have much. All of these sites have ridiculous prices.

7/27/2014 01:03:48 AM Report Abuse
libby70302 wrote:

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5/23/2014 06:38:53 PM Report Abuse

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