New Study Discredits ‘Fat but Fit is Healthy’; Better to be Lean and Unfit

A new study published in Oxford’s International Journal of Epidemiology has targeted the popular theory that it’s okay to be obese, so long as your fit; commonly referred to as the ‘fat but fit’ philosophy. The study, which examined 1.3 million Swedish men, found that the lifespan of a lean individual who undergoes no aerobic fitness routine is, on average, greater than that of an obese person who does aerobics.

The study was conducted by Professors Gabriel Högström, Anna Nordström and Peter Nordström, all of which specialize in Geriatric Medicine as the Department of Community Medicine and Rehabilitation at Sweden’s Umeå University. Högström and Anna Nordström are also members of Umeå’s Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine, Environmental Medicine.

Fat but Fit Theory DiscreditedThe aerobic fitness involved in the research was comprised of cycling on a stationary exercise bike. Rather than cycling at a specific speed, or for a predetermined amount of time, the participants were asked to simply continue cycling until they felt they needed to stop, due to fatigue.

The study has been ongoing for an extensive period of time – more than three decades, in fact. According to the results, “During a mean follow-up period of 29 years, 44,301 [out of 1,317,713] subjects died.”

Of all subjects, the author’s noted, “Individuals in the highest fifth of aerobic fitness were at lower risk of death from any cause… in comparison with individuals in the lowest fifth, with the strongest association seen for death related to alcohol and narcotics abuse,” read the report.

“Similar risks were found for weight-adjusted aerobic fitness,” the results continued, directly addressing the continuation of exercise in lean and obese subjects. “Aerobic fitness was associated with a reduced risk of death from any cause in normal-weight and overweight individuals”.

However, researchers also noted that, “the benefits [of aerobic fitness] were reduced in obese individuals,” and that the reduction in benefits grew with the level of each subject’s obesity. Since the aerobic fitness involved in the study was cycling until fatigued, I don’t find that particular discovery to be very surprising.

The ‘fat but fit’ concept was, in the authors’ opinion, debunked by the study’s conclusion that “unfit normal-weight individuals had 30% lower risk of death from any cause… than did fit obese individuals.”

Oddly enough, the research team unexpectedly found that there was a strong connection between individuals with low aerobic fitness and trauma-related death. However, as Peter Nordström noted in the publication, the team could provide no explanation for it.

“We could only speculate,” wrote Nordström, “but genetic factors could have influenced these associations given that aerobic fitness is under strong genetic control.”

All in all, the study concluded that aerobic fitness provides a healthier foundation for everyone, regardless of their weight. But when measuring the lifespan of overweight subjects who partake in exercises that increase their heart rate and oxygen level, against lean subjects who are not involved in aerobics, the ‘fat but fit’ theory was conclusively debunked.

“Low aerobic fitness in late adolescence is associated with an increased risk of early death,” read the study’s conclusion. “Furthermore, the risk of early death was higher in fit obese individuals than in unfit normal-weight individuals.”

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