Is It Possible to Be Fit and Fat? Research Shows That Active, Overweight People Are Healthier Than Thin, Sedentary People

Skinny Woman
Image Courtesy of Luigi Diamanti,

J. Eric Oliver’s meticulously researched book, Fat Politics, tackles many common assumptions about weight and health, as well as identifying the causes of the modern obsession with weight. In particular, Oliver provides a synopsis of recent large-scale studies, which have found that physical activity, rather than thinness, is correlated with health.

Exercise Improves Health More Than Maintaining a Low Body Weight

Studies often find correlations between high body weight and various diseases, both chronic and fatal. However, when researchers take physical activity into account, it becomes obvious that it is not body fat that is the problem; rather, it is inactivity.

Most obese people are less physically active, so they are more likely to suffer from and even die from various diseases. However, thin, inactive people are also more likely to die from those diseases than active people who range from “normal” weight to overweight by modern standards.

People Who Are Fat but Active Are Less Likely to Die of Heart Disease than Thin, Sedentary Individuals

A 25-year study of fitness, weight, and mortality among 25,000 men found that inactive, thin men were twice as likely to die as active, overweight men. In addition, other studies have found physical fitness to have more influence on the heart disease mortality of older men than hypertension, heart disease, smoking, or body weight.

Other research has found that women who engage in regular physical activity, even just walking, dramatically decrease their risk for developing heart disease, regardless of their body weight.

Active Women Are Less Likely to Develop Breast Cancer, Regardless of Body Weight

A study that followed almost 75,000 post-menopausal women showed that those who were moderately active (walking for 75 minutes per week or more) decreased their risk of developing breast cancer by 18% compared to inactive women. Body weight on its own was found to have no effect on breast cancer risk.

Active People Reduce Their Risk for Diabetes, Regardless of Body Weight

A number of studies have shown that those who engage in regular exercise are less likely to develop diabetes or to die from it if they do develop it, regardless of body weight.

Why People Have Become Obsessed with Thinness

If fitness, rather than body weight, is a true indicator of health, why does the obsession with thinness persist?

Historically, plumpness was considered a sign of success. This rare commodity could only be obtained by those who could afford all the food and leisure time they desired, so higher body weight was associated with affluence.

A by-product of industrialization has been the widespread availability of inexpensive, high-calorie junk food in recent years. Because the human body is programmed to take in as many calories as it can when they’re available to protect itself against future famines, average weights have risen in areas where junk foods are readily available.

Although plumpness was associated with riches in the past, in modern times, it is associated with poverty. Thinness suggests that a person is affluent enough to hire personal trainers, purchase pricey diet products, and eat at fancy restaurants where food quality is high and portions are smaller. Those living in poverty are forced to purchase cheaper foods that tend to be high in refined flour, sugar, and other ingredients that increase the likelihood of weight gain, and to eat at restaurants that serve larger portions of less healthy food. As a result, weight has become correlated with income and education. In the United States:

    • 16% of college graduates are obese compared to 27% of high school dropouts.
    • People living below the poverty line are approximately 15% more likely to become obese than those living above the line.

Attitudes toward body fat have come to reflect the intrinsic socioeconomic prejudices that people hold. Negative attitudes toward the poor are conflated with negative attitudes toward those who are classified as overweight, and thinness has become a mark of social prestige.

Our obsession with thinness is also encouraged by commercial interests because there is far more money to be made from diet products than getting people to exercise more. Walking around the neighborhood, jogging in the park, lifting weights at a local community center, and many other fitness activities can be undertaken for free or inexpensively. By contrast, fad diets and diet products tend to be ineffective in the long run (or at all), causing frustrated dieters to purchase expensive products over and over again in search of the elusive magic bullet.

Good Nutrition Is Also Important

Although physical activity is a better indicator of health than body weight, good nutrition is still important. Eating a diet high in refined flour and sugar and saturated and trans fats will have an adverse impact on health regardless of weight.

For more health and fitness articles, see the main Mind/Body Health page.

Reference: J. Eric Oliver. (2006). Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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