HEALTH AND FITNESS: Asking the right fitness questions

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By Dr. Brian B. Parr Columnist

The idea that being overweight is normal if you are fit is not new. In fact, decades of research show that being obese but physically fit is associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than lean but unhealthy people.

I frequently receive inquiries on diet, exercise, and general health. It is understandable that individuals would have questions given the significant amount of confusion and false information around these subjects. Sometimes the answers to these questions are ambiguous. And occasionally, the inquiry itself draws attention away from a health-related truth that is more crucial. This holds true for one of the inquiries I receive the most frequently: Is it acceptable to be overweight if I exercise?

Being overweight while being fit is not a novel concept. In reality, decades of studies demonstrate that having a healthy weight but being physically fit lowers the chance of dying from cardiovascular disease than having a healthy weight but being unfit. Fitness is important when evaluating the health hazards linked to obesity. But even if you are physically fit, excess body fat might cause other health issues. What happens if, for any reason, your fitness level deteriorates?

Is it ever acceptable to be unfit? would be a better question. The response is no!

There is little doubt that maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly will enhance your wellbeing, lower your risk of contracting some chronic illnesses like heart disease and some malignancies, and lengthen the time you live in a healthier way. Even when body fat percentage is taken into account, this remains true. Obese or overweight people ought to experience greater health issues, however many don’t.

Physical health is the cause. The risk of significant health issues is lower for both men and women who are obese but physically fit than for those who are obese but unfit and, interestingly, even lower than for those who are at a “healthy” body weight but unfit. This implies that a “healthy” body weight is more closely related to fitness than to actual body weight.

Even when you start to include additional health issues like diabetes or high blood pressure, this association still holds true. Although obesity is linked to and suspected to cause several illnesses, physical fitness appears to dramatically lower the risk. This again raises the possibility that some of the health issues associated with obesity may be caused, at least in part, by poor physical fitness.

Fitness in these studies typically refers to cardiovascular or respiratory capacity as measured during exercise testing on a treadmill or stationary bike. A broader definition of fitness also includes muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility. You can improve your physical condition by participating in regular exercises to improve endurance, strength, and flexibility. The benefits are related to the intensity and duration of the workout, so the more you train, the better your fitness will be. But significant benefits can be achieved by walking for 30 minutes a day. In the study, fitness was divided into five physical categories. The most significant differences in health and life expectancy were observed when comparing the highest and lowest fitness groups. But the greatest reductions in health risk occurred between the lowest-fit group and the next-highest group. Even having a slightly healthier body is beneficial.

If you are overweight, getting in shape is just as important as losing weight to improve your health. If you don’t need to lose weight, remember that there will be no healthy weight if you are not in shape. Everyone can benefit from regular physical activity to build and maintain the strength, endurance, and flexibility needed for good mental health and well-being.

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