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Can You Be Fat But Fit?

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Overweight and Athletic

Big 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!'"

Next:  Are You Heavy?


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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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