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Fatness and lack of fitness are easily misconstrued

George Brooks, professor of Integrative Biology | November 9, 2009

It’s really all about fitness!! Fatness and lack of fitness are easily misconstrued.  It is possible to be heavy, strong and healthy. And, it is possible to be unhealthy, underweight and weak.  As we and others have shown, with proper exercise and sound nutrition it is possible to make major changes in fitness parameters and risk factors for chronic diseases without major changes in body weight.

My personal view that in many instances, overemphasis on body weight and dieting (meaning food restriction) are destructive, and counter-productive.  Even athletes seeking to cut body weight by dietary restriction can set themselves up for long-term disability.  Rather, people need to be educated about, and encouraged to pursue healthful dietary and physical activity habits.  As well, people need to be educated about the hazards of contemporary lifestyles that discourage movement, keep us from interacting with the environment and surround us with too much and poor quality food.

While it is possible to be fit and fat, given the opportunity to chose one or the other, the obvious choice would be for fitness over fatness.  But, such a conclusion still misses the point; this is not an either-or situation.  The key thing is to be fit and healthy.  The Institute of Medicine panel that I served on reviewed the literature related to nutrition and physical activity; we concluded that daily physical activity in an amount equivalent to 60 minutes of vigorous walking was necessary to promote physical fitness, reduce risks of chronic diseases and control body weight.

Still, questions such as those posted on the blog arise continuously. There are multiple reasons why questions related to fitness and fatness persist, but certainly data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) give impetus.  The data from the CDC show that we in the U.S. have a growing epidemic in obesity that predisposes us to chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.  On a population-wide basis, Body Mass Index (BMI) data are the most accurate available, but health care professionals can discriminate between athletes and couch potatoes with the same BMI. Most cases health care professionals can make a prediction about a person’s current and future health in minutes simply by measuring abdominal girth and blood pressure.  Certainly, blood tests for sugar and lipid contents and other factors are necessary and informative, but with an educated eye a health care professional can make an accurate assessment of a patient in minutes with, or without BMI assessment.

Given the joys of being outside in fresh air and sunshine, hiking in the hills and mountains or along our beaches, riding bicycles along country roads, or partaking in sports and games, it is a wonder that more folks do not participate for sake of their emotional health.

Given the costs associated with treating diabetes, high blood pressure and lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) in an aging and ever more sedentary and fatter population, we need resurgence in helping and encouraging our citizens to make healthier food and physical activity choices.  With the various special interest groups ranging from agribusiness to big pharma and the AARP to placate, Congress diddles and no one asks the question, “who pays for the lack of fitness?”

Comments to “Fatness and lack of fitness are easily misconstrued

  1. This is a very good post. Great article . I believe that BMI is really just a guide for the general public.


  2. A few years ago i had a very unhealthy lifestyle that ended up making me sick. I took that as a wake up call and changed the way i eat and exercise. I’m in much better shape now, but oddly enough i am still exactly the same weight. Being skinny doesn’t mean your healthy!

  3. I have friends who are overweight but live an active life, participate in sport events and don’t bother with their weight. It all depends on the person, how he/she feels about him/her self. On thing though, you have to have diet and participate in at least one sports activity.

  4. I agree with you that health and fitness are different things. There are terribly unhealthy people who are still conditioned for certain physical activities. One of my friends smokes cigarettes and runs 3 miles a day. He’s definitely fit, but i don’t know if he would be considered healthy.

  5. I agree. Weight and health are not directly related. “Healthy” is a subjective term that could mean many different things. One thing is for sure, our current lifestyle in the US is pretty unhealthy. I recently moved to Europe from Texas and just the fact that I walk around more often, I have actually lost weight.

    Back in Texas, I rarely ever walked anywhere. Here in Prague, I don’t own a car, which means I walk almost everywhere. I lost about 10 pounds even though I drink more beer and eat more food! We really need to ditch out cars in the US and start walking a lot more often! That alone will solve a number of health problems.

  6. Thanks for this post. Am considered overweight, but lead fairly healthy lifestyle. Annoys me when the stick insects look down at me. Am active and play sports, but cannot get down to ‘ideal’ weight.
    Very annoying when I consider myself overall healthier than many of my friends.

  7. I have to agree. Being fit for an activity does not mean that an individual is healthy. I work with several such people. I work in a physical demanding profession. Many of the individuals have the fitness to perform their duties that the average person would not be able to do. Many of these people however are not healthy. Many eat poorly, have high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels. I also agree that anyone who is using the BMI as an indicator of fitness and health is probably doing their clients a great disservice.

  8. that is exactly correct and I would say we should do proper diet so we will stay healthy not fat not skinny but healthy and strong.

  9. I totally agree with your point. Health and fitness are 2 different things. Health is a medical state, fitness implies your ability to do something. There are terribly unhealthy people who can do things that would imply health but it just shows they are fit to do an activity. I have plenty of unhealthy friends who play sports regularly.

  10. I agree that it’s better to be fit and healthy rather than under weight and weak. I like to eat a healthy diet and also use resistance training to help maintain the calcium levels in my bones. I find that exercising using weights, along with some interval training to raise the heartbeat to help eliminate toxins, helps me to maintain my health. I use a DVD to exercise because I live in a remote location and can’t get to a gym. I don’t overly obsess about foods but I do avoid all additives, preservatives etc and make all my food from fresh ingredients. I think this is very important in maintaining a healthy body rather than an artificially preserved one.

  11. A balance diet with good exercise combination will help you to loose weight in a healthy way. Just don’t abuse yourself too much with diet alone.

  12. Yes exercise is a must for everyone.Even a fat person can be healthy even the individual exercise daily. Having a brisk walk for one hour daily with a strict control on diet can work wonders for anyone. So irrespective of whether an individual is thin or fat, work out is a must in order to keep fit.

  13. A continuous exercises will help you more in achieving your goal. You don’t have to rush yourself and do extensive workouts.

  14. “Who pays for the lack of fitness?”

    Excellent question. In my opinion, obesity and the resulting diseases should be a much larger focus in our society. We’re like the frog in the pot analogy – we accept a little extra fat here and there because of the season of the year or maybe we’re particularly depressed and eating helps.

    Get out and exercise to feel better!

  15. In my own experience, having a daily exercise and training will really help a lot to an individual. With exercise a fat person can be healthy as well as the thin. I have been doing the plyometric training and weight lifting. It’s my way to keep my body healthy and strong. I just make sure that my body is in shape specially my tendons since they’re the one I’ll be putting some stress on:))

  16. Hi
    Dietary variables aside, the body’s proportional use of fat for fuel during exercise is dependent upon training intensity. The lower the intensity, the greater the proportion of stored fat is used for fuel. The higher the intensity, the greater proportional use of glycogen and/or the phosphagen system. But this is where the misunderstanding begins.

  17. Hi
    Dietary variables aside, the body’s proportional use of fat for fuel during exercise is dependent upon training intensity. The lower the intensity, the greater the proportion of stored fat is used for fuel. The higher the intensity, the greater proportional use of glycogen and/or the phosphagen system. But this is where the misunderstanding begins. Although I’m burning a greater proportion of stored fat typing this sentence, getting up and sprinting would have a greater impact on fat reduction despite its lesser proportional use of fat to power the increased intensity. Alas, sufficient investigation of the intensity threshold of maximal net fat oxidation has been done. In what’s perhaps the best designed trial of its kind, Achten & Jeukendrup found peak fat oxidation to occur during exercise at 63% VO2 max. This peak level got progressively less beyond that point, and was minimal at 82% VO2 max, near the lactate threshold of 87% [1].

    • Weight loss comes from using more calories than you take in. You can use more calories the fastest with activities that use your whole body over an extended period of time, as opposed to doing site-specific exercises that fatigue one particular muscle group or two. Any movement burns calories, but weight training burns calories relatively slowly—especially when it’s a novice or recreational exerciser using relatively low weights and performing just a few sets. In contrast, you can double your calorie burn by spending the same amount of time doing an aerobic workout (depending on the intensity).

  18. Definitely agree with you Professor.
    Giving the right education should be the main focus because a lot of people think that doing this and that can help them with their diet and exercise without knowing that they are even making it worse. They must learn that not all the things they hear and read over the internet or other sources are already applicable and reliable.

  19. I think there is a bigger question, and that is, as a nation, how can we mobilize our countrymen to strive for higher standards of health, well being, and quality of life? I feel that people are so busy trying to make a living, that they don’t feel they have time to enjoy the beauties and benefits of nature. I think your article reminds us to take some time for recreation, and enjoyable outdoor activities.

  20. I also agree with BMI, people always try to compare fitness with their fatness. The people who always doing fitness can have weight body, it can’t be overweight. So, with the article we know the misunderstanding

  21. George,

    This post resonated quite a lot with me but I must admit that with brainwashing that we receive on daily basis by the mainstream media I think many people (myself included) feel a sense of unease if the scale numbers climb or the trousers become a bit tight, regardless of the level of fitness we have.

    I find that even if I am a little overweight as long as I am active and fit my sense of self confidence remains good. Unfortunately I think many will suffer from the idea that they need to be light to be healthy and will punish themselves mercilessly.

    Nothing a good walk in the fresh air wouldn’t fix. Just goes to show that half the battle is in the mind so yes, education would help.



  22. People are very aware about all the problems and health issues that fatness and no fitness brings, however they do nothing about it. Modern lifestyle took too much energy of all of us and rare are those, who have extra energy to do something more for them. Most of people just give up and live with their “bad” habits…

  23. The tricky thing with fitness is that it is usually specific to a particular activity or skill. It is very difficult to be fit overall unless you are simutaneously lean and participating in a multitude of sports or activities. In addition, high levels of endurance qualities can not be developed while being overweight. You can however be extremely skilled,flexible, strong and or very muscular and still be fat.

    We need to recheck our definition of fit. Fit for what? I was at my fittest for weight training when I was my fattest. My muscular endurance and strength were at there limit but I couldn’t even run around the block without losing a lung.

  24. Health always a great wealth for all. Why we will not achieve this? In this consideration everyone want to have good health. Let us build our healthier life with controlled food habit,discipline, keep pace with work, rest and or exercise. While Health is the root of happiness let us build a Happier life.

  25. I also agree with BMI, people always try to compare fitness with their fatness. The people who always doing fitness can have weight body, it can’t be overweight. So, with the article we know the misunderstanding

  26. I also believe that BMI is really just a guide for the general public. As stated above by Cory the real key to fat loss is calorie cutting of carbohydrates. A low carbohydrate diet with a good training program is a guaranteed way to lose those extra kilos.

    • Yeah i agree of your opinion, everybody wants to have a good shape of body but they don’t know whats the best guide for How to shape their bodies?

  27. I agree about BMI. This is one of the most over-use and relatively useless measurements floating around. People put too much emphasis on it. By focusing mainly on BMI people are ignoring more important issues, and thus, hampering their progress.

    – Jan

  28. Hi,
    Great article,I been in the fitness industry for over 30 years first as a competitor and now as a trainer and totally agree with your findings.I think fitness should be more than the BMI.We need to live a healthy life style and incorporate exercise in our everyday life to feel our best.

  29. This is a very good post. People misunderstand the fatness and fitness concept. Fitness does not at all mean to be look slim, but is that one should be internally strong and healthy. A fat person may not always be considered as strong and healthy as fatness can be due to increasing calories in body and it does not mean at all that he is healthy and strong.

  30. This is a good post and made me think a little 🙂 I agree with a lot you were saying, however I believe certain restrictions in diet are perfectly safe and effective. With that being said you surely have to be smart about it and use a sound base nutrition plan.

    I am a natural weight lifter and I do a bulking phase, where I eat a lot of calories. I have learned to eat the right calories in the right ratios. So many carbs (more carbs on workout days) so much protein, so much veggies, and so many good fats.

    Then on my cutting cycle I do calorie cycling, where certain days during the week I eat low calories, some days I eat moderate calories and one day I eat high calories. The principle in doing this is the low calorie days are allowing my body to burn fat, but you don’t want to keep your body in a low calorie state for too long because your leptin levels start to drop signaling your body that it is starving. So you add the moderate days and the high calorie day to tell your body that it is not starving.

    I also totally agree with the BMI subject. I have no idea why we even use BMI. It really doesn’t tell you much at all. One needs to look at other factors such as body fat percentage, and water weight to get a better picture. Two people the same height, age and both weighing 185 pounds, yet one is 10% body fat and the other is 25% body fat are not the same, yet BMI would say they were.

    Good and interesting post.

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