The SparkPeople Blog

Which is Better: Fit and Fat or Skinny and Unfit?

By: , SparkPeople Blogger
8/20/2008 12:00 PM   :  131 comments

For many years, research has linked being overweight or obese with a variety of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke. But a new study claims that weight might not be the best predictor of overall health.

In a study from The Archives of Internal Medicine, the weight and cardiovascular risk factors of over 5,000 adults were analyzed. The results are a little surprising: Half of the overweight people and over one-third of the obese people in the study were “metabolically healthy.” This means that even though they were carrying extra pounds, it didn’t influence their cholesterol, blood pressure or other measures that indicate risk of heart disease.

Size doesn’t always equate with health. In this study, about one out of four people who fell into the “healthy” weight range had at least two cardiovascular risk factors typically associated with obesity. So maybe you shouldn’t be jealous of your thin friend who eats whatever she wants and never exercises--she might not be as healthy as you’d think.

Several studies from the Cooper Institute show that fitness level is a much better indicator of health than BMI. People who are overweight (or obese) but can still keep up on treadmill tests have much lower heart risk than people who are slim and unfit.

What does this mean for you? First, the number on the scale doesn’t tell the whole story and should not determine whether you’re a success or failure at becoming healthy. In reality that number is, well, just a number. What’s sometimes more important is whether or not you can walk up a set of stairs without being totally winded, or could easily walk the local 5K without wondering if you’ll be able to finish. I remember during my first marathon, I was passed by a woman who didn’t look like your typical athlete. She was overweight, but obviously fit enough to complete a 26.2 mile race (and made me look like I was moving in slow-motion).

There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to overall health, so make sure you step back and look at the big picture. Research like this proves that it’s not only size that matters.


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Comments

  • 81
    About the same time this study broke the news they also said if disaster strikes your health, you may be better able to combat it if you have a little extra meat on your bones. I know with some of my friends who had cancer, they never would have survived as long as they did had they not had the extra weight to lose.

    Obviously we're all better off if we're at a "healthy" weight and physically fit, but I found these studies interesting. They just shouldn't be used as excuses. LOL - 9/12/2008   8:26:24 AM
  • 80
    There is no such thing as fit and fat. Being fat is a health risk. Being thin can just be bone structure, and has FAR fewer health risks associated with it. - 9/11/2008   10:26:53 AM
  • 79
    My sister is into martial arts and has earned a black belt in Tung So Doo. She is very good at this, but weighs over 200 lbs. She feels bad about her size as it isn't the kind of image a mentor should have. But she is fit and can do most of what is expected to keep her status as a black belt. She just can't jump so high. - 9/10/2008   7:04:37 PM
  • RACHELRB
    78
    I recently took a health assessment at work from my insurance carrier. It said that I am overweight, but all of my other health issues (cholestorol, blood sugar, blood pressure, etc.) were fine. I exercise 6 days a week. My 'health score' was a 90 out of 100. If I lowered my weight it said my score would go up to 93. I am still lowering the weight, but it made me feel good to know that I am doing the right things for myself regardless of what I weigh. - 9/7/2008   7:35:20 PM
  • 77
    This study and statistics needs to be considered VERY carefully. The news media coverage is a little misleading. "Among US adults 20 years and older, 23.5% (approximately 16.3 million adults) of normal-weight adults were metabolically abnormal, whereas 51.3% (approximately 35.9 million adults) of overweight adults and 31.7% (approximately 19.5 million adults) of obese adults were metabolically healthy." Roughly, that means that 1/4 of normal-weight adults showed risk factors, and about 1/3 of obese adults did not show risk factors. Weight is clearly an issue, it's just not the only issue, and the good news is that factors such as exercise may help overweight people become healthier even before they lose weight. In an interview with the author, the writers of the article speculated that this result came about because exercise (or lack of it) might have change the metabolic activity of body fat, but that their study wasn't designed to consider that point. It's in the category of future work for them. - 9/5/2008   4:32:42 AM
  • 76
    Thanks for this! I'm so tired of having people assume I'm unhealthy because I'm fat! 10 years of softball, 7 years of marching band, 3 years of college with no car... suckers! - 9/4/2008   12:15:28 AM
  • 75
    Until I got sick and gained extra weight I was by all measurements except weight healthy.
    I biked, swam, danced all night, knocked boots, and more. I have friends and patients with diabetes and heart problems and "look healthy" because of their physical appearance.
    As a martial art practitioner I had no problems with kicks or other movements.
    Illness and age changed me. Now, though it is more difficult, I will overcome.
    For a long time it was heavy makes you happy. I had no problems with it. - 9/3/2008   7:04:10 PM
  • 74
    I am a size 6 also - but the scale keeps bouncing around 132 - 135 and it is so frustrating! I exercise everyday and I feel so much better - I just keep thinking I should weigh less. I know I am way more healthier and fit than I was a year ago. I don't expect to ever get into a size 3 again - I try to be realistic about my 47 year old body!! - 9/3/2008   4:30:44 PM
  • 73
    I don't know if there's any truth to it, but I heard one of the trainers at my gym saying that Sarah Ramirez from Gray's Anatomy is 215 lbs, and says she'll never drop under 200 because she doesn't feel comfortable at anything less. He says that she's sexy at 215 because she's toned, and it's not about the weight.

    For some reason that comment made an impact to me that day, and I haven't forgotten it. For those times of being mad at the number on the scale, I guess! - 9/3/2008   3:49:40 PM
  • BUFFLER
    72
    I learned this the hard way a couple of years ago- I went to the gym with my mom (skinny fat, no exercise since high school cheerleading) and her best friend, an obese woman in her mid-50s. NO PROBLEM my competitive spirit said. Then the 350 lb. woman SCHOOLED me on the elliptical. Now I enjoy running and I've found that even though I can still run as far as I did before, it is slower and a lot more work/less enjoyable. I need to leave my extra 50 lbs. at home. - 9/3/2008   10:35:38 AM
  • 71
    I've heard that before. I think Penn & Teller talked about it on their show. - 9/2/2008   2:22:10 PM
  • BELIZEDC
    70
    I am 5 feet 5 inches tall and weigh 125 lbs with 21-22 % body fat, which is the ideal weight and fat distribution for my body type and height, but despite this I am only 1 point away from having high cholesterol and so have had to modify my eating habits to cut out the saturated fat that is pushing up my bad cholesterol numbers. Even though all my other health indicators are great (and my good cholesterol is very high) and despite being at a very healthy weight, I still have this bad cholesterol thing to address.

    Also, I know from observation that there are a lot of skinny people out there who are not in shape. Just because you are thin doesn't mean that you are healthy, that you have a good muscle mass or that your body fat percentage is at a healthy level or that you can run a block or climb 2 flights of stairs without passing out. No matter what kind of body you have, even if you can stay thin while eating junk food all day, being a healthy person requires some committment and work.

    I like this article because it makes a very important point. Thin does NOT necessarily= healthy. - 9/2/2008   2:16:00 PM
  • 69
    I like this article. It puts it out there that being skinny isn't the end all be all. - 9/2/2008   11:45:48 AM
  • BXGURL95
    68
    I think that it has to be fit and "fat" only because if your fit and in shape then you can't necessarily be classified as fat. Most people only want to be thin and thats it, I think that it is probably healthier to be able to work out if your fit, but I imagine that others will have very diffferent thoughts. - 9/2/2008   10:25:24 AM
  • 67
    Rather measure the results then go by the scales due to the fact that depending when and where you weigh the scales could be off as much as a 2lbs and that can be such a discouragement. - 9/2/2008   8:09:21 AM
  • LELLEDGE
    66
    This is encouraging news. Don't know if I'll ever be a size 10 again , but I am getting healthier by the day! Wanted to comment that my bad habits and weight did not appear to be affecting my health until I hit 50 and was post-menopausal... - 9/2/2008   6:51:32 AM
  • 65
    When 12 people signed up at TUFTS UNIVERSITY in Boston, Mass for a NOVA PBS-TV special on training for the Boston Marathon, they were "couch potato" people, but the doctors were amazed to find with detailed testing that the "normal weight" people were actually "SKINNY FAT". They had very low muscle mass and lots of fat around their vital organs, which is not good. One obese woman did manage to get in the group and she lost 60# during the nine months of training. They all ran and finished the Marathon. What the doctors did learn was that after training to run a 13 mile (1/2 Marathon), that they all had achieved 90% of the benefits of the exercise and that was at five months into the study. You can find this in detail on PBS.org as it aired last November on TV. - 8/30/2008   2:43:35 AM
  • 64
    I think a misconception may develop that all overweight people can be fit and healthy which isn't true of course. I was so frustrated with not losing weight that I had my doctor run tests. Everything came back great, cholesterol, blood pressure. He told me that if I am truly exercising as I claimed than perhaps I should accept the fact that I am a healthy size 14 and this is where my body is comfortable. He suggested the only thing preventing the weight from coming off could be all the stress I am putting on myself to be a size 8. I am trying to accept my body for what it is today and strive to be healthy and stop punishing myself because I am not a size 0. - 8/29/2008   5:02:30 PM
  • RAH4DELL
    63
    I am around many people concerned with living a healthy lifestyle and also fighting health problems. The majority of those who are seeking help with health problems seem to be in a normal weight range more so than in the obese range. I myself could be described as morbidly obese but don't have hardly any problems at all. I know that losing much of the excess weight will lead to great benefits though. Being active and eating well (meaning a wide range of vegetables and fruits) is a big influence on health no matter your size. - 8/29/2008   2:05:21 PM
  • 62
    For Endurance I couldn't be beat when I was heavier- but I still wasn't healthy or happy. Now have both endurance & workin on speel:) And I 'look' a whole lot better too- no more being self consciouse - 8/28/2008   6:31:58 PM
  • 61
    This article fits me perfect! I might be a size 16 and weigh 207 pounds but I am very active. I coach high school cheerleading and keep up with the girls. I am training for a half marathon and the doctor tells me I am in great shape. So I need to lose 50 pounds according to some chart.... i am in better health than most people I know! - 8/28/2008   3:55:27 PM
  • 60
    Really great article. I am thin, and so people often wonder why I work out as much as I do. I think (agreeing with the article) that I want to be fit, be healthy, etc. So you can't always judge someone just by how they look on both ends of the spectrum. - 8/28/2008   3:28:55 PM
  • 59
    This was just what I needed to read today - I have been too focused on the number on the scale and the fact that it isn't moving... Maybe I should focus on the fitness goals I have reached instead of the scale! - 8/27/2008   3:32:21 PM
  • KRYSTLEKLEAR
    58
    I fall into the morbidly obese catagory...but I don't have diabetes, my blood pressure and cholesterol are fine...and I can out-exercise many people! I'm closer to where I want to be fitness wise than weight wise, but it's good to see that fitness matters more. - 8/27/2008   2:02:04 PM
  • 57
    Well,surprise! I am another healthy fat one.I am very active at 73.Can walk faster than many who are 60 and am almost never sick.I have always eaten a good variety of all food groups.Don't care much for greasy fried food or sweets.I'm too fat because I eat too much of the good things but I'm working on it and have lost some weight. - 8/27/2008   12:15:04 PM
  • 56
    There was an article in my Sunday paper this week about the same topic. It makes me feel vindicated. While I need to lose weight, it is nice to hear that even at my current size, my eating habits (fruit, veggies, etc) combined with a moderate exercise program mean that I AM doing the right thing, even if the weight loss is slow in coming (though I've heard that's the way to go). My husband and I have been trying to explain this to our social worker but it seems to be falling on deaf ears (I truly believe she has pre-judged us based solely on our appearance and not our lifestyle). We have been in the adoption process/system for nearly 2 years now and have watched friends and fellow adoptee parents find and adopt children while our home sits childless. This summer we came close but the prospective social worker (a very young woman, who based on appearance and e-mails has never dealt with a weight issue) found us to be "nice" but was uncertain if we were the right parents for an 8 year old girl in need of a home. We were the ONLY couple to submit our information for consideration and as of now, would rather leave the child in a foster home (where statistically she is getting to the point where she will age out of the system rather than be adopted) then to give her to us (loving, gainfully employed, active, intelligent couple). - 8/27/2008   11:14:45 AM
  • 55
    My grandmother was 'heavy' not obese, just round. She was active and happy right up until Alzheimer's took over around the time she turned 85. She lived by herself and was actually 'fire marshall' for her floor in the apartment house where she lived. She could bend at the waist and place her palms on the floor till she broke her hip. I want to be Granny when I grow up. - 8/27/2008   10:47:44 AM
  • JCHOATEX2
    54
    I'm with Saxon54. My hubby is thinner than I am but I think I'm healthier overall. - 8/27/2008   10:02:25 AM
  • 53
    Great article....some questions I've wondered about have been answered. Love this new area of SP! - 8/27/2008   9:58:03 AM
  • 52
    Now if only my substantially skinnier but less fit significant other would accept that! I am gratified to read this article; I just think we need a whole lot more of these in main stream venues to reverse the wave of obesity discrimination. - 8/27/2008   9:05:02 AM
  • ANGELAMF
    51
    My father's motto was "Be fat be happy" He lived a long life being fat and happy. He did physical work all of his life, very few people could keep up with him even when he was well into his 70's. I am fat too, but I am getting healthy. The scale has not moved much in the last 6 months, but I can now walk a 17 minute mile for 8 miles, probably longer. There was a time that I was skinny, but I was always sick. Although I still want to loose more for my self. There will never be a time that I am not a little fat, and very happy - 8/27/2008   7:37:03 AM
  • 50
    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I knew this, but you have given me a good confirmation to show the non- believers!!!
    Allie - 8/27/2008   6:11:43 AM
  • 49
    Great Article! Thanks! - 8/27/2008   12:34:30 AM
  • 48
    Great article and very informative. It makes me a little more satisfied with my weight and also gives me a little push to do more exercise and keep moving! - 8/26/2008   11:45:10 PM
  • 47
    This is a great article, people may be fit even if they have the added weight doesn't mean anything it depends on the health of the individual and/or family history. - 8/26/2008   8:58:54 PM
  • 46
    I have always had better lab results than my husband with his nice physique. I have had doctors almost disappointed that mine are so good. I am obese, but I am fit! Good article! Glad to know studies are showing it can be true. - 8/26/2008   7:58:31 PM
  • 45
    What a better world this would be if the fat-but-fit image was projected as ideal over the thin-as-a-junkie one. Good article, should be required reading for new SP members. - 8/26/2008   7:35:17 PM
  • 44
    There IS more to health than the factors studied in this investigation, though. What about joint problems, fibromyalgia, arthritis, etc.? In my experience they seem to occur more often (or more acutely) in heavier people. In any case, I think the point is that no matter whether we tend to be thicker or skinnier, we all need to be active, build up our strength, & eat right. - 8/26/2008   4:15:24 PM
  • 43
    I am a size 6... sooooo, you'd think I'm fit, but I'm at 29% body fat and still at risk for heart disease and stroke... among all the other medical maladies that come with being overweight. My point being that this is a great article! It is not all about the scale or what you look like. Thanks SP! - 8/26/2008   1:46:25 PM
  • 42
    This article says it all. I personally feel the best I have felt in years. I have found its the littlest of things that are big to me... The fact that I can do 5 loads of laundry up and downstairs and not be winded. I have taken the extra piece out of my necklace cuz it now fits around my neck. I can reach behind me to hook my bra without killing myself and I am making good excuses to always move as before it was excuses NOT TO MOVE. I believe I am going to kick my scale to the curb and let exercise and lifestyle change take its course because as of this date... I have lost 8, thats right 8, 5LB BAGS OF POTATOE'S, 5 Gallons of water (gallons eekkkk), & 4 average bowling balls weighing 10 pounds!!! SO HECK YA you can still be Fit and Fluffy .... Hugsssssssss and skips to the next blog!!! - 8/26/2008   10:30:13 AM
  • 41
    I am down almost 80 pounds from when this journey began, I would love to take off another 40 pounds at least and that has been a pound by pound challenge. Saying that per my Cardiologist ( DON"T WORRY ABOUT WHAT THE SCALE SAYS YOU ARE PERFECT! ) lol, I am perfect within my challenges I deal with having a 2nd degree heart block and a moderate to severe leak in my mitral valve both of which are part in parsal of being chronically ill with a neuro vascualr condition called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. 3 years ago when I started moving again after 12 years of not being able to do so due to this disorder and subsequent unrelenting pain walking a half mile was my daily challenge. Now I go to spin class almost everyday, I ride my bike every where I go, I rarely am exhausted after any cardio workout and I mediate the chronic severe pain in this body using movement. Most of my friends now are fitness instructors at the gym I joined almost 2 years ago and they love to tell me how fit I am. No one is more upset than they are when I am having too much pain and they are often the ones that will tell me to take it easy today. I tell them now that I am able to move I will move! I would love to take this next 40 pounds off but even if it does not come off I will continue to MOVE ! CONTINUE THIS JOURNEY, FIT! REGARDLESS OF WHAT THE SCALE MEASURES!
    pj - 8/26/2008   8:29:41 AM
  • 40
    Interesting. I aced the treadmill test even though I am overweight and have had heart issues. Actually my main goal has been to attain health instead of weight loss. I figured that weight loss would be a welcome side effect of attaining health, but maybe not... I will continue my healthy lifestyle regardless of size. - 8/25/2008   1:16:20 PM
  • 39
    I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I am a "fat but fit" gal. I exercise like mad and am strong and energetic. I have decided lately that "it must be something I ate" that keeps me chunky... so I am excited to see what happens with the diet change. But it is so good to know that I am not alone in this whole Fat and Fit world! - 8/25/2008   11:33:09 AM
  • IMOYA1
    38
    I think this brings to light another point, an unhealthy lifestyle is just that, no matter if you have a high metabolism or not. Obeisity does not cause health problems, it is the effect of many things including genetics and unhealthy living but it is not the CAUSE of poor health. I have gone from a size 28 to a size 12 and was recently taken off blood pressure medication. My sister went from a size 32 to a size 18 and her blood pressure has been elevated. My mom, guy friend and close friend are all bmi correnct but have been offered or are taking anti-depressants. All have admited that healthy eating and/or excercise makes them feel much better. I'm not going to sweat the scale but I am going to keep eating right and working out. - 8/24/2008   4:14:00 PM
  • 37
    The scale may tell the whole story; but as far as health insurance companies go it does. It is all numbers on a page to justify increasing your monthly payment. - 8/24/2008   7:30:45 AM
  • INDYBUTTERFLY
    36
    That is very interesting. I guess in the long run of things, I'd take fat and fit over skinny and unhealthy. - 8/23/2008   10:52:52 AM
  • 35
    It's easy to forget that our genes and hereditary factor do play a role in how healthy we are. I'm a normal weight person and I walk and exercise daily along with doing my best to make healthy food choices but, I have high blood pressure just as my mother, father, and grandparents did. I think my condition runs along the hereditary line and is not due to my lifestyle choices.

    This article should give hope and inspiration to those folks who don't like what the scale says but who do their utmost to eat right, exercise, and make healthy lifestyle choices. There are some people who no matter that they do everything right are going to be heavier than others.

    It also goes to show that everybody (fat, thin, and inbetween) need to get moving and make healthy choices. - 8/23/2008   8:56:57 AM
  • CHIPPER75
    34
    I'm choosing to work towards option 3 which was noticably absent from the list... fit AND skinny. - 8/22/2008   11:44:21 AM
  • 33
    It is nice that you can still be fit while being overwieght, but if you are fit when you are overwieght just think how much more fit you could be if you excercise and eat right to become thinner. I have no current health issues but neither did my mom when she was my age and over wieght but the extra wieght will catch up to you in later years. So says my MOM. So she incouraged me to take action while I am young. - 8/21/2008   4:37:34 PM
  • 32
    Very intresting artical, I wonder if this help with your job, where if you have a job that request you to be active on your feet 4 or more hours a day, will this be part of keep moving rather then sitting 4 hour or more a day and can this be part of your daily exercise. - 8/21/2008   3:46:47 PM

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