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Looking in the mirror used to be a frustrating experience for Chantal Leon. The 24-year-old student from Bridgeport, Conn., had been overweight for years. And even after she gave her eating and exercise habits a major overhaul -- giving up cheeseburgers and exercising faithfully several days a week -- she couldn't get her dress size any lower than a 12.
By Camille Rey
WebMD Medical News
These days, Leon is still a size 12. But she's no longer preoccupied with her body's proportions. When she looks in the mirror, she sees a strong, fit woman who happens to be big. "I know I'm not unhealthy," she says. Her cholesterol and blood-pressure numbers are good, and her physician has encouraged her to focus on maintaining her healthy habits rather than fretting over her weight.
Leon's doctor is among a growing number of medical experts who say that a person's fitness level is far more important to health than weight is.
"You can be fit and fat," says Jody Wilkinson, M.D., a researcher at the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research in Dallas, Texas. "And it's better than being skinny and sedentary." Wilkinson and his colleagues at the Institute have produced strong evidence in support of this claim. Consider some of their findings:
A 1995 study published in the International Journal of Obesity involving more than 25,000 men tracked over a 23-year period found that cardiorespiratory fitness was a better predictor of heart disease than weight. In other words, overweight men weren't necessarily at high risk for heart disease if they were fit.
A study published in the October 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that obese men who exercised regularly had death rates, based on any cause, only slightly higher than those of unfit men of normal weight. (Obese men who didn't work out had death rates two to three times those of the normal-weight men; thus, exercise offered substantial protection even to very heavy men.)
A study published in a 1998 issue of the International Journal of Obesity showed that of 21,000 men, unfit men were much more likely to die of heart disease than fit men -- regardless of how much they weighed.
The Other Shoe
These findings haven't convinced everyone, though. Certainly not the federal government. In 1998, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute issued the first national guidelines on obesity in adults. The government came down hard on the United States, changing the definition of healthy weight to classify 29 million additional Americans as both overweight and unhealthy. Leon, for instance. According to these new federal health standards, her body mass index (BMI) of 26 means that she is officially overweight. And carrying excess pounds, federal officials say, raises a person's risk of heart disease, diabetes, and numerous other ailments.
To calculate your body mass index (BMI), multiply your weight in pounds by 703 and then divide the result by your height in inches squared. (For example, a 175-pound woman who is 5 feet 5 inches (65 inches) tall would have a BMI of (175 * 703) / (65 * 65) or 29.1.)
Or go to http://www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi/ to have the calculation done for you.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered "overweight," and one 30 or above is considered "obese." However, as indicated in the article, these categories may not take into account a person's overall fitness.
But Wilkinson says there is a crucial flaw in most of the studies cited by the "you can't be fit and fat" crowd. He acknowledges that many overweight people are indeed at greater risk of chronic disease. But most studies that have fingered weight as a culprit in these ailments have not factored in physical fitness. Without a way to separate overweight people who are fit from those who are not, Wilkinson argues, the numbers are misleading.
Finding the Middle Ground
Gerald Fletcher, M.D., a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., agrees that a person can be both fit and fat. "But most people are not," he says. That's why he, like most doctors, continues to urge his patients to lose weight -- particularly those whose excess weight is concentrated around their abdomen, who have even borderline high blood pressure or cholesterol, and who have a family history of heart disease.
Regardless of inherited tendencies, size, or shape, doctors, including Fletcher, agree that maintaining a healthy lifestyle remains the single most important advice they can give to their patients. In addition to regular exercise, Wilkinson encourages his patients to eat healthful foods and to change unhealthy habits, such as cigarette smoking.
In addition to body mass index, the following factors are indicators of better health:
Total cholesterol levels below 200 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dl)
Blood pressure below 140/85
Blood-sugar level between 80 and 120 mg/dl before meals
The majority of body fat occurring below the waist
The ability to jog at a light pace for 20 minutes while holding a conversation
"It makes you feel better and improves the quality of life," Wilkinson says. "That's really the bottom line."
And while Chantal Leon still would like to lose 15 pounds, the sense of panic no longer looms over her. "I'm not in a rush," she says, "I'm healthy."
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