Can You Be Fit and Fat?

And can you reduce your risk of a heart attack? That’s what a new study asked, and the results were recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Sports Medicine (abstract 366, specifically).

It’s the question everyone wants answered, given that nearly 2 out of 3 people in the US are overweight or obese. (The photos on this post are of military personnel. Even they struggle with weight and fitness!) The idea being, do we have to be focused on weight if we’re willing to do our aerobic thing, or strength training, or just leading an active lifestyle, with things like regular biking, tennis, and recreational sports and activities?

New Findings

This research, known as Tromsø Study, was carried out over 34 years, from 1979 through 2013. When you look at heart attack risk, long-term data studies are preferred, but by their nature, it takes a oong time to learn the results. That’s what makes this study more significant. Participants were grouped based on the activity levels they reported:

Low activity – walking, gardening, etc. less than 4 hours per week.
Moderate activity: walking or gardening at least 4 hours per week.
High activity: running, biking or similar things that get the heart rate up, at least 4 hours per week.
Vigorous activity: engaging in competitive sports regularly.

Being active at any weight helps

This is the good news. Highly active people at any weight cut their risk of heart attack by about 12% versus those in the low-activity group.

Those engaging in regular “vigorous activity” cut their risk by 37% overall. Among those who were overweight or obese, the more active they were, the lower their risk of a heart attack.

Being overweight or obese mattered more

Even after adjusting for age, gender, smoking, and activity level, the overweight and obese people had much higher risk for a heart attack than normal weight people. Even active obese people were more than twice as likely as inactive normal weight participants to have a heart attack.

HOLD ON! – This Study Wasn’t Perfect

No study is, and the researchers call out this study’s weaknesses and limitations:

• Heart attack was the only health issue studied. Being active DOES benefit other chronic conditions like hypertension and type 2 diabetes, to name only two, but these weren’t addressed by this study.

• Activity levels were self-reported. Sorry – but people are known to report higher levels of activity than they really engage in.

• Body composition wasn’t studied. The researchers used the body mass index (BMI) to classify people as normal weight, overweight, or obese. It’s possible to be overweight but not overfat, especially if you engage in lots of strength training and are thus very muscular, although this is not as common as you might think. Flipping this around – you can be normal weight and still have too much body fat.

Cut-to-the-Chase Advice

1. Do what you can do. Being active at any weight is better than being inactive. Check with your doctor to see what activities are right for you. Running and high-impact stuff just isn’t right for everyone.

2. Consistency is everything. Aim to be active every day in some capacity – even if you’re normal weight.

3. Forget trying to be a “perfect” weight. Pick a weight you can maintain. Work on holding it there for a few months, then re-evaluate. Maybe that’s where you’ll stay, maybe you’ll take it down a bit. If you do go for less weight, take it five pounds at a time.

4. For activity: DO WHAT YOU LOVE. Then love that you can do it. I’ve worked for many years with people who have physical disabilities. They’d give anything to have the option to take the stairs or just go for a walk. Embrace the gift of your abilities.

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