T Nation

Fit and Fat?

I thought that some of you might find this interesting.

No waif, no problem
Researchers are challenging the assumption that heavy people can’t be fit.

By Marnell Jameson

Special to The Times

May 5, 2003

At 5 feet 4 and 185 pounds, Irene Rubinsky looks to some like the “before” picture in a gym advertisement. But that impression ends when Rubinsky begins the exercise dance class she teaches six days a week.

Rubinsky ? who, besides dancing 10 hours a week, also takes weekly Pilates classes and weight-trains ? is more fit than the majority of the population. She’s strong, has great endurance and her vital statistics would put the lean and unfit to shame: Her blood cholesterol, pressure and glucose levels are all excellent.

The 36-year-old group exercise director for three Gold’s Gyms in the L.A. area exemplifies what more researchers are finding ? that health should be measured more by fitness and less by leanness. Research studies and a better understanding of the strong role genes play in determining body shape are leading more doctors to look beyond body size and to focus more on fitness as a measure of true health, says Dr. Steven Blair, an epidemiologist and the chief executive of the Cooper Institute, a Dallas-based organization that studies fitness and health.

“The fact is, if you’re fit, it doesn’t matter what your BMI is in terms of mortality,” Blair says. “Too much focus is placed on diet and weight and not enough on lifestyle and fitness.” (BMI, or body mass index, is a single number used to express the relationship of a person’s height and weight.)

Glenn Gaesser, professor of kinesiology at the University of Virginia, agrees. His new book, “Big Fat Lies” (Gurze Books), argues that it’s time we lightened up on heavy people ? as long as they’re fit. Although it’s true that many overweight people are out of shape, those who are overweight and in shape are better off health-wise than those who are thin and don’t exercise.

“That’s still a hard sell in America,” says Gaesser. “Even fitness center ads focus not on fitness and health, but on weight loss and looks. People think it’s all about losing weight and getting that body, but it’s not.”

In a large-scale study first reported in 1994, and since repeated, researchers at the Cooper Institute who tracked 20,000 men found that mortality rates went up as fitness levels went down. Although overweight people were more likely to die sooner, that was because overweight people were more likely to be unfit, says Blair. “Once we adjusted for fitness levels, we didn’t see any difference in death rates between the fit and lean and the fit and fat.”

Those who were thin and unfit had more than twice the mortality rate of those who were fit and overweight. Men who were moderately fit had a 50% reduction in mortality compared with their unfit counterparts. And those who were highly fit had a 60% to 65% reduction in mortality.

The study measured fitness using standardized stress and endurance tests, but Blair says a person can be considered fit if he or she exercises more than 30 minutes most days of the week.

Such findings are good news for people like Mary Bogue. The 52-year-old Arcadia woman has always been heavy and will probably be her current size (an 18) for the rest of her life, she concedes. “I’m the product of two beach balls,” says Bogue, a character actor who has worked as a body double for Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates. But that doesn’t mean she’s not in great shape. She started working with a trainer 2 1/2 years ago. Today, she swims a mile three times a week and also takes salsa dancing, water aerobics and cardio classes. Though she hasn’t lost much weight, she says, that’s beside the point: “I exercise to be healthy and feel great.”

She stopped getting on the scale a long time ago, “because it really doesn’t tell you what kind of physical condition you’re in.” Instead, she relies on regular checkups to tell her she’s doing great. Her cholesterol and blood pressure are low, and she has perfect blood-sugar levels. "Whenever I go to the doctor, they take my blood pressure three times because they can’t believe how low it is. They say, ‘That can’t be,’ and I say, ‘Yes, it can.’ "

This doesn’t surprise the Cooper Institute’s Blair, who regularly counsels physicians not to judge a patient by his or her contours. Still, many doctors persist in telling the heavy yet healthy to lose weight. “I tell doctors to treat risk factors, not BMI. If a person comes in with a BMI of 31 or 32 and all their risk factors are in the normal range, don’t put them on a diet. Pat them on the head.”

Most of us will never look like models or movie stars no matter how much we exercise or diet, he adds. Much of how we look, including our weight, is genetic. That people prone to being overweight are also less likely to be fit is partly cultural. Many overweight people don’t feel comfortable or welcome in a gym. They fear ridicule. Rubinsky says she often hears fat people say they’ll start going to the gym when they lose weight. “That’s like saying I’ll buy some makeup after I get a date.”

Others don’t exercise because they’ve adopted a “Why bother?” attitude, says Gaesser. “People often start an exercise program to lose weight. When the weight doesn’t roll off, and it usually doesn’t, they give up because they feel they’ve failed. They only failed because they focused on the wrong outcome. The goal should be that they exercise for 30 minutes or more most days of every week. That’s success.”

However, neither Blair nor Gaesser endorses obesity. “When people hear me say fat people can be fit, they think I’m saying it’s OK to be fat, or that it’s better to be fat,” says Gaesser, himself a gaunt 6 feet 4 and 185 pounds. “I never said obesity isn’t a health problem. I am saying that the health risks of obesity are exaggerated.”

There’s also a point, experts agree, at which a person gets so heavy that he or she couldn’t possibly be fit. For example, no one in the Cooper study had a BMI of more than 35.

But for those genetically destined to have corpulent bodies, the movement to accept fit at any size is a relief. “For years I prayed every day to be thin,” says Rubinsky, whose parents put her on her first diet when she was 6 so she wouldn’t end up looking like her mother. “I thought thin equaled success, love and happiness. Now I’m the happiest I’ve ever been: I have a dream job getting paid to do what I love to do most ? dance. I help others, have tons of energy, feel great, am dating a great guy ? and I’m not thin. Like I tell the people in my class, being thin isn’t the answer, being healthy is.”

I’m having a problem with this article. For one, " is more fit than the majority of the population. She’s strong, has great endurance and her vital statistics would put the lean and unfit to shame…"

Lean and unfit? Also, “great endurance…” is rather broad and general. “Great endurance” according to whom? In other words, this extremely fit 5’4" 185lb woman could go up against current 2x WSW (Worlds Strongest Woman), Jill Mills who is 5’4" and weighs 175lbs. However, Jill Mills is built like a brickhouse, I doubt the woman in this article is.

And Jill Mills is a extreme example, I know. But there is no mention to this woman’s BF%; which I suspect is high. And for gawd’s sake, SALSA DANCING?

I see what this article is saying. And I also see many a strongman competitor who are indeed big, but no fat. And I KNOW most people won’t ever aspire to be a strongman, powerlifter, whatever. However, even though the Cooper Institute prof stated he isn’t trying to say obesity is okay, I think this article is saying that.

If anyone ever finds a woman in the world quite like Jill Mills, I’ll be amazed, the show she put on at WSW last year was crazy. I don’t know whether to agree with this article or not, I definitely don’t look like a bodybuilder at all, but at least according to my physicals and stuff, I’m in great condition. If they are wanting to be powerlifters or strongman/woman competitors, and keep themselves in shape, that’s different, but giving people another excuse to let themselves get out of shape, that’s completely different. They’d need better examples of what good condition relatively means.

I don’t like their long term study. Mortality goes up as fitness goes down. No shit. Even though that seems obvious, I still question how they quantified “fitness” if salsa dancing was even mentioned. Mortality isn’t tied directly to being “overweight” or not. How did they determine what constitutes “overweight”? High BMI? High body fat percentage? This could be telling us that those with muscle mass were the “fatties” that lived longer. We don’t know. Maybe most smokers weighed less and died earlier. Who the hell knows from this synopsis of the study?

As far as the heifer they interviewed - so what? I guess we’re led to assume that she was a fatty (her BMI outside of steroid use suggests it - but doesn’t guarantee it), since they say that she looks like a “before” picture. Let’s see how long she lives before we go touting her “fitness”. Also, how did they quantify her “fitness”? The only thing I found reasonably assuring about her outliving the average person her age was the report from her doctor. Let’s hope those are guarantees for her sake.

I am open to the possibility that you can keep a higher body fat percentage and BMI and live longer than average, but it’ll take more than this article to convince me that being a fatty isn’t damaging to your health. If people want to believe that they’re “fit and fat”, fine. Hopefully natural selection will take care of those sheep.

Fit and Fat? How can than be. The ACSM lists obesity as a seprate risk factor for CHD. Just proves that people make excuses for everything.

At the risk of oversimplification:

If you’re fat outside, you’re fat inside. More fat inside = greater chance of heart disease. Anyone care to respond?

Harkonnen-I agree, though you can be fit and overweight. Granted, my idea of overweight isn’t what the general publics sees as overweight. Where are you from by the way? You name sounds Finnish.

Fat is just one factor of many. I have known many skinny unhealthy people, and a couple fat people as healthy as a horse. But being obese is definitely a factor in health.

My understanding is that people do have a tendency to either store more, or less fat internally. But above a certain level of body fat, I don’t think it matters very much.

People will read this article and use it (and misquote it) as an excuse not to exercise or diet.

Sully26: Unless he coincidentally has the same name, Harkonnen is a character (actually family house) from Dune.

So everybody’s shaped differently. I’ll never be “skinny”- one of my boyfriends always affectionately called me thick hehe. But I’m solid. There’s no rolls of fat or anything. This is the second article I’ve read with people who are (to my mind) “fat” calling themselves “fit”. It doesn’t make sense to me. You can’t possibly have a double chin and a bulging stomach and puffy wrists and be in shape. I’m just not reconciling the phrase “overweight and in shape”. Now, granted, like the Jill Mills example, you may weigh more than you “should” but be fine.
But if you “look like the before picture in a gym ad”…give me a break.

she “teaches” aerobics at the club i used to workout at.
she most DEFINITELY looks like a before pick.

Well at the very least I admire fat people that work out more than the blobs that have just given up and and complain. Like this one lady that wanted car manufactures to make bigger cars. Arrrrrrrrrrrrggggghhhhh!!! I agree that being fat is a separate risk factor to your overall health. However I would like to offer up a little paradigm shift if I may. We all think of fat people as lazy eating machines that don’t try. On the flip side we have all met individuals who barely work out and eat like shit and have muscles to die for. Some of the super obese obviously have great propensity for fat gain…even to the point that while doing everything right they may still not get the desired body. So maybe fat and fit is a worthy goal for them. Just like I’ll never make the NBA no matter how hard I try. I hate of offer up excuses for people that already seem to have so many but…regardless the whole situation is frusterating. :slight_smile:

This reminds me of when I was at MEPS. A bunch of us where sitting around talking about the various tests that the differnt services had. Then this kid, who hardly passed the body fat % test says “I can run 2 miles in 12 min”. But what was worse is that this guy has a c-cup. There is no fat and fit.

I suck at running, and I’m not that good at HIIT either. But I bet I can outrun these fat fit people. Haha.

OK Fine. Maybe she is fat and has some strength and endurance. I still don’t want to fuck her. Also, I don’t give a fuck what her blood work says. 5’4" and 185 – She looks like a beach ball. No way that can be healthy. Her heart has to pump blood through all that crap.

Two things this article reminded me of. One, why areobics are useless for fat burning. (She teaches how many aerobics classes per day?) And another, something Ian King said a while back. I’m paraphrasing, but the basci point was he felt too many people focused on bf% in athletes, rather than their overall fitness/ability. I think his argument was that as long as they were able to perform, their BMI was inconsequential. I know that Poliquin and several others have taken an opposite stance, arguing that decreased bf levels would contribute to athletic performance. I’m also thinking of those sumo wrestlers who die of heart failure in their 40s. They’re fit (for their sport)and really fat. I wonder if the Cooper clinic included any of them in their study?