Is it better to be fit and fat, or unfit and thin?
Originally Published: April 20, 2001 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: October 31, 2008
I am a graduate student in nutrition and food studies, and I am currently enrolled in a weight management class. We are questioning the issue of being fit and fat. Is it okay to be fit and fat? What do you feel are the limits? Is it better to be fit and fat than unfit and thin? This discussion arose from an article in the International Journal of Obesity, where researchers disagree on the importance of exercise in a weight program. How important is it? Also, a Newsweek issue cover story, "Does it matter what you weigh?" I am interested in your opinion. Please write back. I love your web site!!
It's hard to say if weight or fitness has a greater impact on overall health, so there's really no clear-cut answer to your question. However, recent research indicates that we should reconsider our beliefs about weight and fitness. Being fat is not always a sign of poor health and being thin is not always a mark of physical fitness or good health. And no matter what your size, frequent physical activity is beneficial.
A recent study in published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2008 calls into question accepted beliefs about weight and health. The study found that about 25 percent of participants with average weight had health problems such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and low levels of HDL-cholesterol or "good cholesterol." On the other hand, about 33 percent of obese participants were healthy in these areas. For this group, weight alone wasn't always a good estimate of health.
However, being very overweight does have its risks. A 2004 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that obese participants with a body-mass index (BMI) over 30 were more likely to die during the course of the study, regardless of their level of physical activity. Although all the participants were female nurses, researchers have found similar results in men.
All that being said, fitness is certainly more complex than maintaining a particular weight. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends regular physical activity that includes moderate exercise 5 or more days a week, for at least 30 minutes each day. According to the CDC, physical fitness is measured by heart and lung performance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and body composition (ratio of "lean mass" to fat). Interestingly, weight and BMI are not included.
So it seems that weight does matter, but not always in the way we expect. The bottom line is that "fitness" and "weight" mean different things for different people, but hitting the gym or taking a brisk walk several times a week is sure to do a (fat or thin) body good.