Healthy Diet and Exercise, for Fitness or Fatness?

For years, experts have debated the issue of why people should eat a healthy diet and exercise. Should they do so for fitness, or fatness? Two academic health professors compared the difference between the two finding that, while on some levels fitness and weight management go hand in hand, they are also two completely separate entities.

Dr. Tammy Chang and Dr. Caroline R. Richardson are both Assistant Professors in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan. Dr. Chang is a practicing physician, while both are dedicated to health services research.

The two paired up to publish an article distinguishing the parallels of fitness and fatness. The results may surprise you.

Fitness vs Fatness: The Great Debate

Fitness or FatnessThe doctors defined fitness as, “how well your heart and lungs work to supply oxygen to your muscles”. Fatness, on the other hand, is “a measure of your body height and weight”, calculated by a computation of measurements known as the body mass index (BMI).

For example, according to BMI, an adult who stands 5’7” tall is considered to be of healthy weight if they are under 160lbs. A weight of 160-191lbs is considered moderately overweight, while 192lbs and above is categorizes as “obese”.

(If you know your height and weight, you can calculate your BMI here.)

However, fitness is also generally defined by a person’s weight, which can be an inaccurate calculation based on several factors. For one, an overweight person can still be fit if their heart and lungs are working properly to supply oxygen to the body. Secondly, muscle weighs more than fat, so a very muscular person could easily be labeled overweight, or even obese.

Similarly, being thin does not make a person fit, either. There are plenty of skinny people who would find it incredibly difficult to run a mile, while a categorically obese, 5’7” 200lbs NFL running back could do it with ease.

But as Dr. Chang and Dr. Richardson explained, “these are exceptions, not the rule. Studies show that when someone is categorized as obese, the likelihood of them being fit is very low. So in our society, being obese still generally means lower fitness,” they said.

Fatness Generally Impedes Fitness

The two agreed that, generally speaking, an obese individual will find it more difficult to achieve fitness. This is because the more “fat” weight a person is carrying, the more difficult it becomes to move around. “Obese individuals often have a difficult time doing physical activity due to body size, limited mobility and joint pain,” they said.

Studies have shown that obese people often find a relatively simple walking exercise to be strenuous, causing them to easily become short of breath. This is because the more weight an individual carries, the more oxygen their lungs have to pump into their muscles compared to the amount a healthy-weight person would require to accomplish the same exercise.

The doctor’s rationalized, “Fitness is just harder to achieve if you can’t move easily.”

Obesity leads to Higher Mortality Risk,

Health Issues and Lower Quality of Life

Regardless of a person’s BMI, studies have shown that unfit individuals—overweight or not—are at a 2x higher risk of mortality. Then again, other health related issues can also be predicted based on a person’s weight.

Obesity has been linked to a throng of health issues, the worst often being diabetes, heart disease and/or liver disease. Those diagnosed with such disorders will find that becoming physically fit isn’t enough to remedy the situation. In such cases, decreasing body fat is more important than being fit.

“Fatness also has a lot of other implications outside of strictly health effects,” said Dr. Chang and Dr. Richardson, whose personal experience has taught them a lot more than medical books ever could.

“For family physicians like us that care for obese patients, the most heartbreaking stories are from obese patients who can’t go on roller coasters with their children or can’t keep themselves clean due to their size.”

Overall, the two concluded that, for obese people, improving the quality of life is just as important as decreasing their risk for mortality and health issues. As such, they recommend daily exercise, a healthy diet and “most importantly” weight loss.


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