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Can Fat be Fit?

eharnett's picture

                Does the number on the scale correlate to how healthy you are?

In today’s media we are always reminded of the ongoing battle against obesity in America and how the number of overweight and obese adults in the United States has risen (as of now about 60% of Americans are overweight or obese) (5).  Yet according to our culture we are always told “thin is good, fat is bad” by the magazines and movies.  It’s a very black and white subject:  you are either fat or thin, with no in between.  If someone if thin they must be fit and healthy, whereas if someone is fat they must be unfit and unhealthy.  However, it seems that there must be some middle ground.  People are different from each other, and people have different body types based on variation:  therefore, why should we all be set to the same standards?  If everyone has a different body type then shouldn’t there be different levels of fitness for different types of people as well?

This topic appealed to me for a variety of reasons.   I’ve always tried to stay active: I played varsity volleyball and softball in high school, worked with a gym trainer four times a week, and worked with a nutritionist to watch what I ate.   However, I’ve never been “thin”.  My BMI (Body Mass Index, explained below) is 27 which is considered “overweight”.  However, I feel that I am physically fit and know that I have a better cardiovascular system than many of my thinner friends at home.  This made me wonder:  Can fat really be fit, and could it be considered healthy? Recent studies have occurred trying to answer this particular question-is it possible for someone to be fat and fit, and could a person be considered healthy even if they are overweight? 

Today a person is calculated to see if they are overweight or obese is by using a system called the Body Mass Index, also known as BMI.  This tool is used to determine the body fatness of people-that is, how much extra fat that they are carrying on their body.  This is done by using a person’s height and weight.  By using a simple mathematical equation, a person can determine whether they are underweight (below 18.5), of a healthy weight (18.5-24.9), overweight (25.0-29.9) or obese (over 30).  The following mathematical equation is used to determine the number:

Formula: weight (lb) / [height (in)]2 x 703 (5)

For example, if someone weighed 145 pounds and was 5’6”, then there BMI would be 23.4, according to the equation, and therefore they would be considered “healthy”.   However there are many gaps in this calculation.  It does not take into account the relative fitness of the person.  Muscle weighs more than fat, so if a highly trained athlete were to use the Index they would probably have a BMI number considered “overweight”.  For example, if we determined Alex Rodriguez’s (a third baseman for the New York Yankees) BMI, we would find that he had a BMI of 28.12, which is considered to be overweight (4).  This is one of scientist’s major concerns: that being “healthy” is determined by just height and weight.  If a person has normal blood pressure, normal cholesterol and normal glucose levels then they may not necessarily need to lose weight (1).  This is why this system frustrates many scientists: because so little is being taken into account with this system the numbers that are given cannot be considered reliable.  There are so many other factors than just weight that come into effect with a person’s level of “fitness” that it cannot be determined by just one classification. 

So what does exercise do exactly that makes us healthier?  The most important part of exercise is getting oxygen to different parts of the body: making your heart more efficient and making your arteries and veins larger which prevent the buildup of fats as well as blood clots.  Exercise is pertinent in the prevention of coronary heart disease as well as osteoporosis and arthritis.  Exercise is also essential in preventing diabetes and obesity.  It also helps to quicken your metabolism, which leads to the quicker break down of lipids (fats) and carbohydrates.  Exercising is important in preventing disease and keeping your body healthy but, though it may lead to weight loss, it is not necessarily the primary effect.  This can show why someone’s BMI number may not necessarily correlate to whether they are healthy or not: it does not show how healthy a person’s cardio vascular system is and therefore if they are preventative to many of the diseases that come with being obese.

So if BMI doesn’t judge whether a person is healthy or not, than what does?  Many scientists believe that a person’s health should be determined by their fitness and not the amount of fat on their bodies.  Because of the difference in body types, it makes sense that some body types might have more body fat on them but not be detrimental to their health.    For some people they may not need to lose weight-just exercising is good enough to make them healthy.  Because of different body types, some might need more weight than others.  For example, women naturally have more body fat than do men.  As Dr. Rick Kausman of the Australian Medical Association says, "Human beings are meant to come in all shapes and sizes. We have to allow our weight to be the healthiest it can be to us, not to anyone else." (2)  According to many scientists, being healthy doesn’t necessarily depend on weight, but on blood-cholesterol, blood pressure and sugar levels.  All of these factors can be decreased and kept at a normal level by exercising regularly and therefore being “fit”.  Being overweight is seen as “bad” because of the connotations that come with being obese-being lazy, not exercising and not eating right.  However this is not true for many “overweight people”, who may be heavy but exercise regularly and are physically fit.  The word overweight has many bad connotations in today’ society that it is seen as ultimately negative, without any clarifications as to the other aspects of a person’s health. 

A problem that can continue to affect our view of being overweight is that society and the media fixate too much on the idea of losing weight-they don’t emphasize that you should also exercise and eat better too.  Because of all the fad diets and ways of losing weight that are available today this is becoming all too common and people aren’t able to create permanent healthy lifestyles (1).    People see being thin as being healthy, which isn’t necessarily the case.  As we determined before, health isn’t just determined by how much someone weighs.  Instead, it is what they eat and how much they exercise, as well as other variables such as blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels.  Society continues to perpetuate this image of “perfect health” which isn’t healthy at all-in a way, it keeps a person just as unhealthy as they were when they weighed a lot before.

However, according to much of my research, there is still some skepticism as to whether fat can really be fit.  Many scientists and doctors encourage that people who are overweight lose the weight even if they are fit or not.  Tania Ferraretto of the Dietitians Association of Australia believes that "even if symptoms for diseases are not apparent now, that’s not to say that they aren’t at risk in five or 10 years time." (2)  Like Ferraretto, many doctors believe that even if cholesterol, and blood pressure are good in overweigh people, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will stay healthy.  So does this mean that fat really can’t be fit?  A doctor at Harvard’s Brigham Hospital, JoAnn Manson, says: "Being fit and fat is better than being unfit and fat, but it's not as good as being fit and lean." (3)  Though it may not necessarily be considered healthy to be fat, as long as you continue to exercise it makes all the difference.  Though you may be fat and fit, you can still be considered healthier than someone who may be thin and unfit.  Therefore, don’t allow the scale to control your life.  Instead of depriving yourself of food, go out for a jog or lift some weights instead.  In the long run this will become much more beneficial to your health and ultimately your life.   

Primary Sources:   

  1., Rob Stein, Washington Post, November 26, 2004
  2., Charmaine Camilleri, The, October 3, 2003
  3., Lacey Rose and Leah Hoffmann, Forbes
  4., New York Yankees Team Roster  
  5. , Melissa Tennen, June 2007

Other Sources


aumlan's picture

Re:Can Fat be Fit?

I agree largely...
What ought to matter is whether an individual not how much he/she weighs... for instance a metric like BMI won't consider excess weight due to high bone density or bulging muscles.
To my mind, rather than BMI what one should consider is body fat %.

Anonymous's picture

You tell that jogging or

You tell that jogging or what ever can replace dieting. But don`t you think that even jogging or lifting some weights will not help you be healthy if you eat some disgusting hotdogs after your traning???? Being healthy - is being fit (I agree with you), but it is aslo the way we controll our eating habits.

Paul Grobstein's picture

fat, fit, healthy?

Sounds a little bit like saying whether someone is "fat" has some of the same problems as saying whether they are "alive"; its a matter not of one factor but of several different factors that may or may not correlate with one another. Maybe that's true for "fit" and "healthy" too? Maybe things that are interesting can't readily be measured along a single scale, in biology or in the classroom?