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Does Fitness Matter More than Weight?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Which is better:  being fat and fit, or thin and unfit?  The first reaction might assume that carrying excess body fat is more harmful to your health, even if you exercise regularly.  But is that true?  Opinions will differ depending on who you ask, but some of the latest research seems to contradict what we’ve typically been lead to believe.  Size is not always the best indicator of health. 
Newer research has been exploring the “obesity paradox”, a term used to explain how overweight and obese people tend to live longer with chronic illnesses than those who are a normal weight.  For example, “One study found that heavier dialysis patients had a lower chance of dying than those whose were of normal weight or underweight. Overweight patients with coronary disease fared better than those who were thinner in another study; mild to severe obesity posed no additional mortality risks. In 2007, a study of 11,000 Canadians over more than a decade found that those who were overweight had the lowest chance of dying from any cause.”
Scientists have validated these results in a variety of medical conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.  Although research has yet to find a definitive reason, there are theories as to why those who are overweight and obese fare better with these chronic illnesses.  One theory is genetics (the illness presents itself differently in those who are thin versus fat.)  Another theory is that doctors don’t treat thin patients as aggressively because it’s assumed their bodies are able to deal with the disease more effectively.  Or maybe the real problem is that we are assigning blame to size, when really there are other factors causing these diseases.    
Just because someone appears to be normal weight, doesn’t mean they don’t have issues with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc.  Size does not tell the whole story.  Recently, I had my body fat tested and heard the story of a woman in her late 50’s who came in for the same test.  This woman had been running 4-6 marathons per year for the past 30 years.  She looked very fit and trim on the outside, but her body fat test revealed that she was 40% fat (which should put her into the obese category.)  The reason:  she never knew that strength training was an important part of any exercise routine, so she had very little muscle.   Although she was the picture of good health on the outside, on the inside there were some very serious health concerns.
Research has shown the protective effects of cardiovascular fitness, and has led some to recommend that choosing between the two, its better maintain fitness than a normal weight.  Of course there are exceptions (those who are severely obese or underweight), but in general, the protective effects of fitness are hard to deny.  I’ve been in fitness classes and running groups with overweight individuals whose fitness level runs circles around mine.   Size is just one piece of the puzzle.
What do you think?  Would you rather be overweight and fit, or thin and unfit?   

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FAT2FIT1971 5/3/2020
I fit into this weird category. I am considered obese at 200 pounds because I am only 5 feet tall. Yet, it is extrenely hard to find someone in my area to hike with me. Not because I hold them back. They hold me back. I hike 6 to 10 miles, and all my friends wimp out at 2 to 3 or complain that my pace is too fast Report
KITTYHAWK1949 1/11/2020
I think overweight BMI is where I want to be as I had read before that it has the lowest death rate and isn't a longer life what most of us want? Report
KHALIA2 1/9/2020
As healthy as I can be!!! Report
HOTPINKCAMARO49 11/22/2019
Interesting info. Report
KOALA_BEAR 9/6/2019
I would rather again be thin & if need be, unfit. I hate bring overweight.
Just being fat is unhealthy unless it's only a few lbs
Sorry but an overweight person is not what I want to be, misleading article. A few good points but otherwise a blatantly biased take. For everyone cardio and strength training is important~ Report
The key sentence is at the end: "Size is just one piece of the puzzle." Years ago I read a little book by the heart Association that emphasized looking at a number of factors: waist size, performance on the stress test, BMI, weight, and subjective feelings of wellness. They recommended not focusing to narrowly or obsessing about any ONE measurement, and always focusing on the positive. Report
I believe the article is giving false hope for people who are overweight. Why try to encourage someone to be overweight which is linked to a myriad of diseases? I am thin and fit and that's what I want to be. Nonsense article. Report
overweight and fit? I've never heard of such a thing Report
Thin and fit! Report
Overweight & Fit Report
Great post thank you Report
If 40% fat is considered obese does anyone know what the normal range is Report
Thinner and fit. Report
Well I reckon there are plenty of disadvantages and health complaints that get worse if one is overweight. This article only looks at certain health problems but there are other diseases and issues, such as cancer or arthritis and being overweight is influencing those negatively.
Also, I don't get the example of the woman with her 40% fat - was the fat making her unhealthy? What were the 'serious health complaints'? Is it bad to have little muscle? All questions that are left unanswered.
I would not want to chose between fat and healthy or thin and unhealthy. I would want a weight that suits me well and be as healthy as I can. Report
Overweight and fit! Report
I have been overweight all my life, but was always able to "keep up". I told myself I would lose weight when it interfered with my chosen lifestyle. That worked until about 32. Then I lost 100 + pounds on Conway ( high protein, no fat, very low carb, under 1000 cal per day). Unfortunately nonsustainable and I gained 200 pounds back until the age of 59 when my knees were bone on bone and it was excruciating to walk. Ortho said no surgery becsuse of morbid obesity and no cortisone shots because they would not work. I had bariatric surgery and lost 154 pounds, without exercise. 6 months ago I started to gain again because my old eating habits were winning in my new retirement. In Feb I decided to bite the bullet and get Back on Track. I also find this platform. I am happy to say regain is gone and I have replaced my food addiction with a new passion - physical fitness and healthy eating. I am more physically fit than I have ever been in my life. Regain is gone and I am 61 pounds to my goal weight which I never reached. Would I rather be overweight and healthy or underweight and unhealthy? Neither, I am excited just to be Healthy! Life is a journey and I will keep on 5his journey with exuberance. I will never settle. Report
Right now I am in a 2 - 3 pound plateau I just keep losing and gaining the same weight. But, I am more active and eating healthier than I ever have. I am taking this journey one step at a time. The best part? I feel better than I ever have - even when I was a thin 20 something. I think having energy to do what I want to do is way more important than my size. Report
I've increased my activity level and eat smaller, healthy-ish meals, and I haven't lost any weight. My blood pressure has always been good, my sugar is fine, my cholesterol has decreased from 220 to 160, so I can tell I'm moving in the right direction. I don't need to be "thin", my body shape makes that impossible, but I'd like to be able to find clothes that fit me and be able to do yoga without fat getting in the way. When I was in the military they wanted me to be 120 pounds (@ 5'7"?), lowest I ever got was 150, post baby low was 185 -190 (28% body fat), now at 230 (35% body fat). I would rather be fat and happy than thin(ner) and miserable. Right now focusing on lowering my waist- to-hip ratio (currently .82) since that seems to be a better indicator of health from the reading I've done. Report
Geeze, not the best question to end the article with. Would I rather be overweight and fit or thin and unfit? Not all thin people are unfit, in fact, more thin are fit than overweight. How about a size I feel comfortable at and healthy? I think it is important to love our bodies no matter what size we currently are, but I also think that we know when we feel at our best physically, regardless of what the scale and BMI charts read. IMO it's better to stop listening to what is being tossed out there and start listening carefully to our bodies instead. Report
Whether you are thin or fat you can be healthy or unhealthy. And I'm glad people are seeing that. When I was over 200 pounds my numbers were always healthy, but I was obese. I didn't want to be obese anymore. And my numbers are still healthy because I still make sure I am active. I think the main thing is no matter what your size, try to eat less junk and make sure fitness is part of your life, and you will be healthy on the inside no matter what the scale says. Report
Healthy and fit come first for me. Fitness allows me to DO the activities I enjoy. Being fit gives me reason to want o lose weight. I'm tired of dragging the extra pounds along for a run. And, I would like to go deeper in child's pose or one-legged pigeon, but I'm in the way. Haha! Report
I am considered fat and fit... over the summer had my annual my doctor was praising me left & right because my numbers were (in her opinion) great. Problem is i'm 5'3.5' weighing 218pds my only health problem is bad ankles (heredity). For me I'd like to have my outside reflect my inside. Report
I would definitely prefer to be overweight and fit! Some extra body fat doesn't compare with a weak heart, little muscle, blocked arteries... Report
very interesting article I would rather be overweight and fit with all the numbers as they should health wise Report
I am fat and fit at least according to the BMI and I think I like it that way! My physician told me to ignore the BMI because my lab work is all normal and I am a lot "thinner" that I was. I was 372 pounds before. I workout for as long as I want with various levels of cardio and strength training (walk, jog, stair master, elliptical, workout DVDs, treadmill, participate in races, etc) and I am not tired afterwards but filled with energy for the day (unless I do like 1.5 hours of a Kelly Coffey Meyer DVD- then yes I am tired after that). My goal was never to be a size 3, 5, or 7. My goal was to be healthy, have energy, get off of medication and have normal labs! Report
My morbidly obese mother always claimed the doctors couldn't believe how good her heart was, I feel she used this claim as a reason to never make any changes in her life. I see the same attitude in my sister, also morbidly obese, while I fight daily with my weight, trying to get to a proper range. My mom's life was taken by a blood clot in her lungs, from years of inactivity due to her size. I find it hard to believe that being overweight can ever be considered "healthy". Report
After loosing a lot of weight and developing a healthy lifestyle with a healthy diet and fitness I have developed high blood pressure which was ok before. I have gone from a size 16-18(UK) to a size 8-10(UK). Whatever I do I can't seem to get the blood pressure to stabilise so have had to go on meds. I am very disappointed as I wanted to be healthy even more than slim. Report
While I know my current weight, 277, is way too high, all my blood work comes out in a perfectly normal range. My doctors are baffled and I keep telling them I may be fat but I'm still healthy. Every time I go on a weight loss plan and I have been a perpetual yo-yo dieter my entire life, I always end up at the same weight. I was walking out of the store the other day and a woman my age, 60ish, was standing by her car looking flustered and I asked if I could help her with something. She said I can't get the cat litter in my car. I said let me help you. She went to help me lift it and it was awkward so I said I'm stronger than I look, let my try. I picked up this huge container of cat litter and gently set it on the floor of her back seat. She just stared at me like I was some kind of freak. Me fat, her thin. So I am all in the fit before thin category. That being said I am still trying to get my weight under control but fitness comes first. I am training for my first 5K and am going back to Taekwondo next month. I took a break because I thought my weight was getting in the way. Now I know that was not the right approach. Report
It doesn't have to be one or the other - people can be fit AND thin. Report
I'd rather be overweight and fit, but the charts narrowly construe healthy weight. That's part of the problem. Personally, I'd like to see the overweight category added to the healthy weight, the obese labeled overweight, and the morbidly obese labeled obese. I understand that it's popular to lump everyone together, lower them to a number, but it's not the entire picture.

I want to be around average weight and fit. I find it easier to exercise the nearer I get to normal weight. I wonder if some people are thin because they are unhealthy rather than unhealthy because they are thin, for example some dialysis patients may get thin because their health is failing, not the other way round. I've seen a Japanese study which shows that people who maintain an average weight all their lives live healthier lives than those who yo-yo. Report
I rather be fat and fit. Although I whether be at a good least not considered obese. But I always knew I was healthier than most thin people. I have more muscle, strength, and stamina whenever I played competitive. So many people would be in awww and shocked that I could move do quickly and be do physically active because of the weight I carried. It was do annoying that people are misguided about what is considered fit. I was 230lbs and was still getting my grind on, playing harder than most without any health issues. I have since dropped down to 199 lbs and I plan to continue to lose the weight until I reach my goal of 150 lbs. Report
I would rather be fit but it's so hard to differentiate the two Report
I had given up on ever doing ST on a regular basis, and have been losing and gaining the same 40lbs. After returning from a 35 year reunion of my college swim team I promptly signed up with a personal trainer. We work together on T & Thur and I have to motivate myself to get to the gym and work out on Sat. Yesterday was the end of my second week, and while I am most definitely sore, I feel better.

I know fit & fat is better than unfit & thin. But i still plan to get to healthier "fat" weight.

In jr high my best swim buddy & I looked like twins, but I was 15+ lbs more than her, but you couldn't tell by looking at us in our swimsuits! I know you can be "fat" and healthy. Report

I really like that one. When I was trying to learn to swim about ten years ago (I was a late swimmer because of an incident involving an uncle throwing me in a murky river at the age of four and thus terrifying me of water for the next fourteen years of my life) I had trouble believe I COULD float. I know I can float now but I certainly have to tread water to stay upright where my feet don't touch bottom! Report
Absolutely fit and overweight. Weight is such a relative number. In my family we are big but many of my family have flat abs and very little body fat... yet according to BMI's they are all very overweight. The test in my opinion is throw them in the pool. Tell them to take a big breath. If they float staying upright in the deep end and are above their nose then they are overweight. If their nose is below the water or if they are stuggling to stay up... then it is not fat! Report
Fit and overweight. Because I've been there and it's pretty awesome. My natural weight (the weight I fall at when eating intuitively and exercising) is technically overweight.. When I fall below that weight I actually start to look unwell. It's all in bone structure and how you carry your weight. My DOCTOR said nothing about my weight when I was at that point, just congratulated me on being very healthy.

Bottom line: Not all of us are meant to be thin, anyone can be fit. Report
I would rather be fit. Report
Fat & fit Report
I try to tell my friends who want to be "thin" that they should instead be "well." We want to be strong and agile and fast to live a full life. Thin seems to be about deprivation in that context and I think that being well is about having more: more energy, more vitality, more fun! Report
Fit. I'd rather be fit then be injured because my muscles are weak. I'd rather be fit and be able to keep up with my nephews then just look pretty in a picture. I'd rather be fit and be able to hike with my friends without being the slow one than just being able to fit in a dress.

Fit fit all the way. Report
I really appreciate this article. There is so much size bias. Why can't we appreciate people in all shapes and sizes. Why must we judge ourselves and others on a number on the scale. I ride 90 min most days. I have a healthy heart and can keep up with my skinny teenagers any day. I am obese on any scale and have been except for dips in starvation since I was 4. I'd like to say its enough to be fit because I will never be thin unless I stay stuck in anorexic. Then I may get thin but it will kill me. I'm always fighting the urge to make food the enemy and self hate. Let's not make thin the only measure we judge ourselves and others on. Report
I'll use my favorite NFL quarterback as an example: Aaron Rodgers. According to the NFL website, he is 6'2" and 225 lbs. The BMI calculator puts him at 28.9 which is on the high end of overweight. As in, close to obese. If you haven't seen Aaron Rodgers, go look him up. Does he look overweight? No.

This is just one example. BMI and weight mean virtually nothing to me. Do I need to lose weight? Yes. But my goal is to be healthy and fit. Losing weight is one of the means of achieving this goal. Not the other way around. Report
I am intrigued by this research, and suspect I might be living proof of the hereditary theory. I have been moderately overweight my entire life, although only obese for a a very short period of time. All my life I have had BP of 115/65, pulse 50-60, normal blood sugar, below normal cholesterol, etc. I am a healthy, active, 72-year-old. I was briefly within my healthy weight range (128-155), but currently weigh 173. I have never smoked, I eat mostly organic foods, I take prescription medications only when it's a matter of life or death. I have done yoga for about 20 years and practiced relaxation techniques I learned in college! I am not obsessed, but I am conscious of the choices I make.. Most people who first meet me think I am 15 years younger than I am. BTW, my father put cream in his coffee, slathered butter on his morning toast, and ate lots of meat, but had normal cholesterol. He died of lung cancer at 74, after smoking for 62 years.

Bottom line for me: fit is more important than being thin, but I don't plan on letting overweight become obese. And my fitness program involves cardio, strenth AND flexibility. Report
I'd rather be thin and unfit and it would be easier to get fit than lose the weight. The option I'd like is to be fit and thin and I'm working on that! Yeah! Report
I don't believe this; but I know I'm fine.
I believe it. I currently weigh 301lbs; with my all time high weight 380lbs. I've been overweight/obese my entire life (I'm 31). But right now today, I am fitter than I have ever been. My blood pressure averages 116/68, my cholesterol is fantastic - all in range and ratios are great. I've never had blood sugar issues. I workout 6 days/week, average 1200 minutes/month. My endurance is increasing. My muscles are tight and firm. I have new found strength and balance that I've never known - ever. At 6ft tall, the BMI chart wants me to weigh 160-180lbs. I don't believe that to be a healthy weight range at all for me - I would be thin and unfit because there wouldn't be room for muscle mass. I intend to settle in the 200-220lb range (I haven't seen those numbers since 6th grade).
I believe that my "fitness" and "health" indicators will only improve from here.

I guess that just goes to show that you should NEVER assume that because someone is a larger size that they are automatically unhealthy. And you should NEVER assume that the BMI chart is accurate. Report
That's the choice? I'll take normal BMI and fit, thanks. I don't need another excuse to put extra pressure on my knees. Report