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Stamford: You can be fat and healthy, but not without exercise

Last week, I took issue with research findings that proclaimed you can be both fat and healthy. I worried that the general public might grab the headlines and sprint back to their couches with their chips and dips. To help prevent this, I pointed out that being “fat and healthy” needed to be interpreted with several qualifiers.

One, using techniques such as body mass index may inappropriately label a large number of people as fat just because they are heavy for their height. An example is those with excessive muscle mass.

Two, women who store body fat below the waist may have a high BMI and still be healthy, because fat around the waist is what destroys health.

And, three, those who exercise can offset the impact of carrying too many pounds of body fat and still be healthy.

Before proceeding, let me expand a bit on the notion of the fat exerciser. Most people would think that exercise and being fat are mutually exclusive. Not so. Overconsumption of calories increases body fat, and it’s hard to avoid fat gain with exercise alone if you are not careful about your diet. To burn off two doughnuts, for example, would require an hour of brisk walking.

If we view exercisers as two types – those who are careful with their diet versus those who are not – the latter group likely will boast a large number of overweight members.

I remember when I first started running the Kentucky Derby Festival mini-Marathon years ago how I would be surprised to see a chubby jogger up ahead of me. My first thought was, hey, what’s that fat guy or gal doing here? My second thought was, oops, they may be fat, but they’re running faster than me.

As I wrote last week, exercise can be a great equalizer. The good news is, if you are overweight, starting an exercise program can improve your health immediately, before you lose the first pound. So one way to realistically embrace the “fat and healthy” headline is to exercise every day.

Another qualifier has to do with the interpretation of who is truly healthy among the research subjects included in the study. Regular readers of this column know that “normal” levels for blood pressure often are assumed to be “healthy” levels when they are anything but. It’s typical in such studies to assume that values falling in the “normal” range are healthy, whereas values outside the “normal’ range are not. Because those carrying excess body fat are more likely to have a higher blood pressure, a liberal interpretation of “normal” values being healthy would put lots of fat folks under the “healthy” umbrella who shouldn’t be there.

As always, heredity is a factor, although it’s hard to know how much of a factor it might have been in the study. Regardless, it’s important to consider that sometimes you can be fat and healthy if you luckily have the right parents, or lean and unhealthy if you have the wrong parents.

There also can be health-destroying ways of managing your weight. Smoking is a popular weight-management tool, especially among young women. Smoking hypes metabolism, which burns lots of extra calories each day. Smoking also destroys health, as do eating disorders, and both can help keep you lean. For these reasons, some of the subjects in the research study might have been lean but unhealthy.

The “fat and healthy” headline can be misleading if you embrace it at face value. So, before deciding that being fat won’t destroy your health, take stock of your personal situation by addressing the following questions:

• Are you carrying excess body fat, particularly around the waist?

• Are you sedentary?

• Is your diet loaded with too many calories from fat and sugar?

• Are your medical test results “normal” (or worse), rather than healthy?

• Do you have an average hereditary profile?

The typical American adult would answer “yes” to each of these questions, supporting the fat part, but not the healthy part of the headlines. If your answers are mostly “yes,” forget the headlines and get busy taking off those excess pounds of fat.

Bryant Stamford is professor and chairman of the department of exercise science at Hanover (Ind.) College. Address questions or suggestions to “The Body Shop,” The Courier-Journal, P.O. Box 740031, Louisville, KY 40201-7431

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