Every now and again a report pops up in the papers claiming you can be both fat and fit. This one is from September and found via Running Bunn. In this particular study 43,000 people were tested, 18,500 of which were overweight. Of these 18,500, half of them were assessed as being “metabolically healthy”, meaning that they had no high blood pressure, no high cholesterol and no high blood sugar.
The same study reported in the Daily Mail starts with the sentence “Nearly half of fat people are just as healthy as slim people – and at no more risk of developing heart problems or cancer, researchers claim.”
The problem with these reports is that the attention grabbing “YOU CAN BE FAT AND FIT” headlines cover up the uncomfortable truth that for an increasing amount of our population they’re just fat. The study actually found that those obese people who were metabolically fit exercised more than those who weren’t. There was no discussion of what their diets actually consisted of in the article.
As of 2008 a study found that only 40% of men and 28% of women in the UK were getting the minimum recommended levels of physical activity for adults, but almost a quarter of Adults were obese and 60% were overweight in 2009. There are an awful lot of people in those numbers who are obese and getting no exercise. (in fact this study found that over 90% of people WEREN’T getting enough exercise in 2009)
As I write this I am overweight, and in the past I have been obese on the BMI scale. There have been times when I’ve done no exercise. Times when I’ve done moderate and sporadic exercise, and in the last 6 months I actually consider myself a regular exerciser. I have no doubt that I am far fitter than someone who weighs less than me but the most exercise they get is walking to the fridge for another bottle of wine, but I also have no doubt that Jessica Ennis would kick my arse in any fitness test you care to pit us against each other in. I don’t eat as well as I should, or as badly as I could. But I do my best to live my life and exercise and eat well in a world that sometimes makes it nigh on impossible to do so.
Fat and thin, fit and unfit are extreme ends of a spectrum that we are all placed somewhere along. We need to stop making excuses for our position on it by pointing to studies with fat people who AREN’T dying of heart disease and focus on the idea that we can make our bodies work better by making small changes to our lives, even if it’s walking to the shops instead of driving or taking the stairs instead of the lift.
There are many indicators of health and our risk of heart disease and diabetes. Our BMI is a clear and easy to measure external indicator that other things may be wrong, another is our waist to hip ratio. These are indicators that we may have risk factors like a high percentage of abdominal body fat, high cholesterol and high blood sugar. They are promoted as measures of health because we can measure them at home with a tape measure and a set of scales instead of a blood test or full body scan.
So, can you be fat and fit?
Does it matter?
Focusing on fatness rather than fitness as an indicator of health causes problems as it’s so tied up with questions of body image and self worth. It’s an easily measurable variable, but people are very resistant to the idea of themselves as fat. They’ll point out other people who are fatter than them, that they are an average weight, the size of clothes they buy in the shops and they’ll leap on articles about fit and fat people as justification because it’s far easier than the alternative. This article in the Telegraph is interesting as it looks at one mans attempt to prove himself as healthy when his BMI showed he was overweight.
Maybe it’s time to move the focus from the scales and focus on improving activity levels and diet.
Unfortunately the world makes it far easier to be unhealthy, out of town shopping centres, huge restaurant portions and fat laden ready meals all reduce our activity levels and increase our calorie and fat intake, so maybe it’s time to address what business could be doing to help people make healthier choices. It’s time we looked at portion sizes in restaurants and insisted chain restaurants displayed calorie and fat values for their food on their menus.
If you’ve ever tried to buy a salad in McDonald’s you’ll know how hard that choice can be! They look at you a bit confused and then have to go and check if they actually have any. Often the answer is no. Frankly it’s far easier just to buy whatever 800 calorie burger is on special that day, and buy it with chips as asking for just a burger is far too confusing.
We need to take responsibility for the choices we make rather than making excuses, but we also need to start insisting that retailers and government make the healthier choices easier than the bad ones.