Can You Be Fat But Fit?
Overweight and AthleticBig Accomplishments
But can women who are packing an extra 25, 50, or even 75 pounds on their frame actually kick ass athletically? "They might pay a price when it comes to speed," says Chuck Hobbs, the head coach for Fit2Train, a triathlon team in Dallas. But in terms of strength and endurance, the answer is, hell, yes. Consider the group of athletes recruited for a recent study at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas. All of them are seriously accomplished, having participated in multiple Ironman competitions, marathons, or distance cycling events. And all of them are obese, with fat making up more than 30 percent of their body weight. "From a cardiorespiratory standpoint, they are very strong and very healthy," says the study's lead author, Santiago Lorenzo, PhD, a cardiopulmonary researcher at the institute. "They have outstanding endurance and are comparable in fitness to fellow athletes of normal weight."
What's more, Lorenzo and other experts suspect that an obese athlete's body can actually become stronger from carrying its own weight. In essence, the extra pounds provide built-in resistance training, especially for the lungs, which can have trouble inflating fully when there is a lot of fat in the chest cavity. "The bodies of the obese athletes in our study have adapted after years of conditioning," Lorenzo explains. "They have developed an ability to generate higher airflow and deliver ample oxygen to their blood and muscles. For typical obese people who want to become active, this may mean that they are not going to have the limitations we previously assumed they would."Minor Changes, Major Benefits
For those who set their sights on the fat-but-fit paradigm and aspire to a healthier body, metamorphosis doesn't come easy, however. Packing extra poundage can make it hard to get down on the floor or up from it or to move freely. There's also an emotional component: "They need to find environments where they won't be bullied and where they can actually enjoy and excel at what they're doing," Hobbs says. "When they are confident about what their body can do, they become more motivated to take good care of it. Real change begins to happen."
When the author Hanne Blank retrained her focus on exercise instead of food, her eating habits and her weight finally reached an even keel after years of yo-yoing. And every one of the active large women interviewed for this story drove home the fact that making regular exercise a part of her life has caused her to feel happier as well as more empowered, attractive, and inclined to take on greater physical challenges.
All of which is reason for us to stop using the word normal when we talk about weight and start focusing on realistic goals and expectations, including exercising regularly and being more active every day. These are words to live by for Blank, who is happy just to get out and get sweaty. "It's been almost 10 years since I took my life off hold and decided to become physically active in spite of my weight. I'm out there almost every day, walking, biking, hiking, or weight lifting. I feel comfortable in my body. I'm energetic and healthy," Blank says. "But even people close to me sometimes shake their heads and ask why I'm still fat. And I tell them, 'Because I am. That's just what I've got!'"
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