Is it possible to be overweight and fit? How linked to your health is the number of the scale? Can you be a healthy person who is technically overweight? It’s true that weight isn’t everything. Your food intake, your sleeping patterns, your personal life and relationships and how much physical movement you do all contribute to your health and wellbeing. But a new study is showing that weight is still strongly linked to overall wellbeing.
This study followed more than 1.3 million Swedish men aged around 29 years and examined the links between the weight and aerobic fitness of the men, and the statistics of early death. The researchers tracked the men, who were all in the armed forces, from age 18 into adulthood. As part of their army application they all took fitness tests on an exercise bike and were weighed and measured. The team of researchers then examined records to see any links between those who were overweight, underweight or average weight and those who died early from illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.
The results showed that fit men, even when inactive, were far less likely (30% less likely) to die early from illnesses. Heavier men had the same rate of illness, whether they were active or not. This suggests that the benefits of fitness aren’t as effective in those who are overweight and in extreme obesity have little effect at all on overall health. Perhaps maintaining an average weight is more important than being fit after all.
However, this study only looks at men, not women and counted in the early deaths from illness those caused by drugs, alcohol and suicide. It’s also worth noting that though the while slim but inactive men were 30% less likely to die early from an illness than obese inactive men, the men in the ‘fat but active’ category weren’t more likely to die from an illness by the same margin. Only 3.4% of the participants died during the course of the study, so the sample range wasn’t all that wide to begin with.
Another study, this one by the Sax Institute, made a narrower claim, stating that being physically active may not offer protection against type 2 diabetes in those already overweight. The study looked at the physical activity habits and sitting times through the day of 29, 572 men and women, 611 of which had developed type 2 diabetes over the course of three years. It found that even if you are highly active and spend most of your time not sitting, those who are obese have five times the risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those of an average weight. Even those who were only overweight, not obese, still have twice the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The main message the researchers involved in the survey wanted people to take away was that living an active life was not a ‘get out of jail free’ card when it came to health, fitness and healthy behaviours, particularly dietary behaviours.
When Being Overweight Really Matters
However, it might already be too late, as the crucial age for slimming down to improve your health long term is in your early to late adolescence. Low aerobic in late adolescence is associated with an increased risk of early death. Other findings indicate that your BMI in early adulthood is more important than high physical fitness levels when it comes to preventing early death. This contradicts the belief that even obese individuals can minimize mortality risks by being physical fit.
But is this the whole story? These two studies, though both with a limited scope, certainly indicate that it’s not possible, or at least not common, for someone to be overweight and fit. But both these studies also focus in on fatal illnesses and discount other factors, as well has the academic study done on this subject previously.
Prior research on this topic (10 separate studies) concluded that those with a high cardiorespiratory fitness have similar death rates whether they are classed as overweight, obese or at an average weight. It also concluded that unfit people have twice the death rate of fit people no matter their weight.
Abdominal fat does tend to indicate a higher risk of health problems than fat carried around the hips and thighs, as it surrounds and compromises internal organs. This puts you at a high risk for metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that increases your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. So perhaps your waistline rather than the scales is where it pays to keep the fat off.
These substantial and repeatedly found conclusions all seem to say that whatever your number on the scale, being physical active will be good for you. Experts in preventative medicine are more interested in blood sugar levels and blood pressure as a determiner of health.
A recent study from 2012, published in the European Heart Journal sums up what most of this research is saying – that when obese people are metabolically healthy, which means when their blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar are within the healthy range, they are at no greater risk of death from early illness that those of an average weight. A body that exercises regularly is generally a healthy body, whether it is fat or thin. Considering muscle is heavier than fat, perhaps you shouldn’t be looking at the scales to measure your health.
Movement and physical activity are the best preventative medicine for most disease – muscles consume sugar when they are working, which leaves less in the blood to cause diabetes. Physical activity also reduces inflammation in the cardiovascular system and allows blood to flow more freely, which prevents clots. Moderate exercise – at least two and a half hours a week – combined with a good diet can improve your health immensely, even if there’s no actual weight loss.
So the experts are still divided – some argue excess fat will lead to cancer, heart disease and diabetes regardless of exercise and others believe being inactive is the real killer, contributing to one in six deaths.
Perhaps this quote from a medical expert (Linda Bacon, Ph.D) sums it up best. “Weight and health aren’t one and the same thing,” says Bacon. “Just ask a fat football player, or a thin person who lacks sufficient access to food. It is very possible to be fat and healthy, and thin and unhealthy.”