According to a new study, fitness trumps weight. In other words, if you maintain good physical fitness but are overweight, you can still be considered healthy and reduce your risk of disease or early death. But is that really true? Not completely in our opinion.
Published in this month’s Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, the study looked at over 14,000 adult men and found that, regardless of body mass index (BMI), maintaining physical fitness over a period of six years was the most important factor in lowering disease and increasing longevity. In fact, those who had good fitness levels showed a 19% lower risk of heart disease and stroke-related deaths and a 15% lower risk of death from any other cause, while those who were less fit had a higher risk of death. On the other hand, changing one’s BMI (from overweight to “normal”) did not decrease their risk for disease, leading researchers to conclude that fitness is more important than body weight for overall health.
Duck-chul Lee, Ph.D., the study’s lead researcher explained why they believe this is a positive finding:
This is good news for people who are physically active but can’t seem to lose weight. You can worry less about your weight as long as you continue to maintain or increase your fitness levels.
That’s a valid opinion, but it doesn’t take into account the complete and long-term picture of health. It also doesn’t take into account the health of someone who is obese–only those whose BMI put them in the “overweight” category were measured. Being 10 or 20 or 30 pounds overweight with normal blood pressure, cholesterol and other key markers may put someone in the “healthy” range, but can someone who is 50, 60 or 80 pounds overweight still be considered healthy for the long term–even with good vitals? Past research has told us that carrying around extra weight can lead to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. And just because someone who is more than a little overweight doesn’t have chronic diseases at the moment, it doesn’t guarantee they won’t down the road because excess weight is a contributor to cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
We also know that food consumption is a major factor in their overall health, and the participants’ diets were not taken into account here. Because even if we have good vitals and good physical fitness, a poor diet will likely catch up with us.
As Dr. Joseph Colella told us in an earlier post, food is a vital part of our health:
First of all, What people eat is much more important than what they weight. So in general, if you believe that, and I do, then it’s kind of a convoluted answer because if you’re careful about what you eat your weight will actually take care of itself. And so even if you weight a little bit more than you should, if you’re eating the appropriate foods, number one you’re going to be less likely to get sick and number two your weight over the long term will manage itself.
Focusing on a single weight is not healthy either, so none of this should imply that thin equates to health. As we’ve documented here before, people can do some pretty dumb things to try to lose weight (like diets that practically starve them). And that’s certainly not healthy either. It’s a balance to find the right weight for you and your body.
Dr. Brooke Kalanick even advises to stay away from using BMI as a tool to measure one’s weight:
First, body fat percentage is the best tool to use as it’s more accurate assessment of “body fat.” BMI can be misleading if you are say a short, muscular female – you’ll appear “fatter” than you are, as BMI is merely a calculation using height and weight (weight not being necessarily a good indicator of “fat”).
She went on to warn us that staying within a healthy weight is important, as long as we don’t go to extremes:
I think our society values a very thin physique that is not necessarily the best for every woman, so I don’t advocate a very low body fat percentage as the only way to be healthy, but we do need to stay below the high twenties for women in order to protect our bodies and be healthy.
So research like this is interesting and should be used to validate the fact that everyone’s “healthy” body weight is different, but it should also not be construed as an excuse to ignore our total health. Because ultimately what makes someone healthy has a lot more to do with how much they weigh or how much time they spend at the gym.