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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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lark1964 wrote:

I have weighed between 240-245 (5'8") for years, I go up, I go down, but I always return to the range. I work out with a trainer regularly, I can run 2 miles, I eat healthy - and it doesn't come off or stay off! So, here I am, my boyfriend thinks I'm sexy, my 25-year-old daughter says I look great, my trainer uses me as an example of curvy power on his wall in his studio, and my doctor says I'm strong and healthy. What more could I ask for, really?

1/10/2014 09:27:46 AM Report Abuse
sunflowersince1999 wrote:

I'm glad. I've got a friend who calls herself fat. she exercises regularly but she isn't that small according to her. but checking her BMI and reading this I can tell her she is healthy. I'll give her this site. Thank you!!

12/29/2013 03:41:55 AM Report Abuse
hmhughes171 wrote:

Perhaps we now have to redefine what "overweight", "obese", and "fat" really mean. If women are healthy, fit, constantly exercise, and even have a doctor tell them they are healthy, the they are NOT overweight, obese, or fat no matter what the scale or society says!

8/20/2013 03:15:17 PM Report Abuse
benchpress150 wrote:

I feel guilty for having wrongly judged my "overweight" friends, even though I suspected, based on swimmers at my local YMCA, that many of them could kick my butt! I know they do in the pool!

8/12/2013 12:20:15 PM Report Abuse
sdudley18 wrote:

Is that picture supposed to represent a fat but fit girl? Maybe it's our image of 'fat' that needs to change, because as far as I'm concerned it looks like the girl in that photo has a defined waist and strong legs. Sure she has some curves, but since when are curves necessarily fat? I disagree with, and am sometimes offended by some of the photographic representations in this magazine.

7/15/2013 11:15:14 AM Report Abuse

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