Fitness and Fatness: New Research Unveils a Surprising Link

Almost needless to say, we are a body-conscious nation. Diet and nutritional fads (Atkins, South Beach, pomegranate, organic produce, the Fireman's Diet, the Caveman Diet, the list could go on ad nauseam) attract our attention and our wallets. Part of this obsession with weight and body image is a tendency to automatically equate "fat equals unhealthy," never mind that many people also automatically assume "fat equals ugly" and some might even equate it to some moral failing on the part of the overweight.

But in this rush to judgment, we are missing something: a new meta-analysis (where the researchers combine the findings of a number (sometimes hundreds) of different studies and see what the body of work says) shows that our perception that "fat = unhealthy" is not exactly right. Instead, the meta-analysis found:

Compared to normal weight-fit individuals, unfit individuals had twice the risk of mortality regardless of BMI [body mass index]. Overweight and obese-fit individuals had similar mortality risks as normal weight-fit individuals. Furthermore, the obesity paradox may not influence fit individuals. Researchers, clinicians, and public health officials should focus on physical activity and fitness-based interventions rather than weight-loss driven approaches to reduce mortality risk.

Translated from the jargon, this means that simply being skinny does not mean you're healthy, nor does simply being overweight mean you're unhealthy. Instead, one can be overweight and not be at any higher risk of death than a skinnier person. The key metric is "physical activity." In other words, if you are a skinny couch-potato, you are just as likely to keel over as the overweight person who is not fit and does not exercise.

That is, as the authors noted:

These findings are promising for all individuals, including those unable to lose weight or maintain weight loss as all can experience significant health benefits by developing or maintaining a moderate level of cardiorespiratory fitness by participating regularly in physical activity (such as) brisk walking or biking.

The bottom line: it's nice to be skinny, but a little bit of pudge won't kill you. Just exercise, and stop worrying so much about your thigh gap.

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