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Be Fit and Lean

Being Fit Not Enough

Some research suggests your size doesn’t matter as long as you exercise regularly. But new findings on this controversial issue paint a different portrait of a healthy body.

Fit AND Lean

A recent study of more than 5,000 men and women found that being overweight does indeed affect your health, regardless of how much time you clock at the gym. “The main message is that you need to be both fit and lean,” says study author June Stevens, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “Being fit is not enough and being lean is not enough. You need to be both to maximize longevity.” From 1972 to 1976, when study participants were in their mid-40s on average, they took treadmill tests to determine their cardiorespiratory fitness levels and researchers measured their body mass index, an assessment of body size that takes into account height and weight. Based on the results, the subjects were grouped into four categories – fit, unfit, fat or not fat – and followed until 1998.

Compared with participants who were fit and not fat, those who were unfit and fat faced the greatest increased risk of death – 57 percent for women and 49 percent for men. While exercise helped promote longevity in the fat group, it did not compensate for all the negative health effects of the excess weight, according to findings published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. And not surprisingly, people who were thin but out of shape also had a shorter life span than their lean, active counterparts. The findings offer encouraging news to overweight individuals hoping to improve their health: Exercise can help. But weight still matters. “If you’re overweight and you’re fit, that does not mean you don’t need to lose weight,” Stevens says.

Body Mass Index (BMI)

“There’s too much focus on BMI and body weight,” says epidemiologist Steven Blair, president and CEO of the Cooper Institute, a non-profit organization in Dallas that studies fitness and other health issues. He says most studies on the dangers of obesity have not adequately accounted for the impact of exercise.

“Don’t just look at a person’s shape,” says Blair, “and conclude that they’re unhealthy or that they’re healthy.” But that’s often what health professionals do, he says. Doctors routinely exhort overweight patients to lose weight when they may be better off focusing more on exercise and less on the bathroom scales, he maintains.

Fitness vs. Fat

Unlike Stevens’ research, work by Blair and colleagues has suggested that fitness may be a much more important factor in longevity than fatness. In fact, a 1999 study involving nearly 22,000 men followed for an average of eight years concluded that being fit appeared to negate the health risks of obesity that can lead to an early death. When it comes to living a long life, results indicated, it’s better to be fit and fat than thin and sedentary.

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