“Is it okay to be fat if you are fit?” is the wrong question. Instead, ask “Is it ever okay to be unfit?”

I get a lot of questions about nutrition, exercise, and health. Given the considerable uncertainty and misinformation about these topics, it comes as no surprise that people have questions. Sometimes there are no clear answers to these questions. And sometimes the question itself shifts the focus away from a more important aspect of health. This is true of one of the most common questions I get: Is it okay to be obese if I exercise?

The idea that it is okay to be fat if you are fit is not new. In fact, decades of research shows that being obese but physically fit is associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than being thin but unfit. When assessing health risks associated with obesity, fitness matters. That said, excess body fat can lead to other health problems, even if you are fit.

A better question would be, Is it ever okay be unfit? The answer is no! This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Overweight men walking


There is no question that being physically fit can improve your health, reduce your risk of developing certain chronic diseases like heart disease and some cancers, and help you live a longer, healthier life. This is true even when you take body fatness into account. People who are overweight or obese should have more health problems and die sooner, but many don’t.

The difference is physical fitness. Men and women who are obese but physically fit have a lower risk of serious health problems than those who are obese but unfit and, surprisingly, even lower than people who are at a “healthy” body weight but unfit. This suggests that a “healthy” body weight has less to do with weight and more to do with fitness.

This relationship holds true even when you start adding in other health problems, like high blood pressure or diabetes. Even though obesity is associated with and thought to cause these conditions, physical fitness seems to reduce the risk significantly. Again, this suggests some of the health problems linked to obesity may be due, at least in part, to low physical fitness.

Physical fitness in these studies typically refers to cardiorespiratory or aerobic fitness measured during in exercise test on a treadmill or stationary bike. A broader definition of fitness also includes muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility. You can improve your fitness by participating in regular exercise to develop your endurance, strength, and flexibility. The benefits are linked to the intensity and duration of the exercise, so the more you do, the better your fitness, but substantial benefits can be achieved from walking for 30 minutes per day.

In the much of the research, subjects were divided into five fitness categories. The most significant differences in health and longevity were seen when comparing the highest and lowest fitness groups. But the biggest reduction in health risk was between the lowest fitness and the next highest group. This means that becoming even a little more fit is beneficial.

If you are overweight, becoming more fit may matter as much as losing weight for improving your health. If you don’t need to lose weight, remember that there is no such thing as a healthy weight unless you are fit. Regardless of your weight, everyone can benefit from regular exercise to achieve and maintain the strength, endurance, and flexibility necessary for good health and wellbeing.


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