Fat And Fit: Why Exercise, Not Dieting, Is The Key To A Longer Life

Experts are arguing for a 'weight-neutral' approach to being – and staying – healthy.

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You might have heard the maths that to be fit and healthy, your focus should be 20% on exercise, and 80% the food you eat. But a major review of research on the subject argues that we’ve got that ratio all wrong.

Multiple studies have shown how people around the world have been trying to lose weight over the past 40 years, and yet obesity has continued to rise.

The authors of this new study argue that’s it’s quite possible to be “fat but fit”, and that people should concentrate on exercise rather than dieting for a longer life. From their review of previous research, they conclude that when it comes to getting healthy and cutting the risk of dying early, doing more exercise and improving your fitness is more effective than focusing on shedding pounds.

Writing in the journal iScience, Professor Glenn Gaesser, from the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University, and associate professor Siddhartha Angadi, from the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia want us to reboot how we think about “healthy” culture.

“A weight-centric approach to obesity treatment and prevention has been largely ineffective,” Prof Gaesser said. “Moreover, repeated weight loss efforts may contribute to weight gain, and is undoubtedly associated with the high prevalence of weight cycling (yo-yo dieting), which is associated with significant health risks.”

The study’s authors argue instead for a “weight-neutral” approach to the treatment of health issues caused by obesity.

We often vilify obesity, they say, even though a lack of exercise can be equally harmful. “Many obesity-related health conditions are more likely attributable to low physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness rather than obesity per se,” they suggest.

“Epidemiological studies show that cardiorespiratory fitness and physical activity significantly attenuate, and sometimes eliminate, the increased mortality risk associated with obesity,” said Prof Gaesser.

Previous studies have also found that “increasing physical activity or cardiorespiratory fitness is consistently associated with greater reduction in risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality than intentional weight loss”.

One such study, the Nord-Trondelag Health Study, followed up over 16 years with adults who had coronary heart disease and found that sustained low physical activity was associated with 19% lower risk of dying from any cause and sustained high physical activity was associated with a 36% lower risk of death, when compared with people who were inactive.

In comparison, weight loss was associated with a 30% increased risk of death but there was no increased risk of death caused by weight gain.

“Fat can be fit ... fit and healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.”

- Professor Glenn Gaesser, Arizona State University

So, exercise is the thing. The researchers do make clear that adopting a weight-neutral approach “does not mean that weight loss should be categorically discouraged” – especially when so many people do desire to lose weight.

“But shifting the focus away from weight loss as the primary goal, and instead focusing on increasing physical activity to improve cardiorespiratory fitness, may be prudent for treating obesity-related health conditions,” they say

“We’re not necessarily against weight loss; we just think that it shouldn’t be the primary criterion for judging the success of a lifestyle intervention programme,” said Prof Gaesser.

While, in a weight-obsessed culture, it may be challenging for programmes that are not focused on weight loss to gain traction, “we would like people to know that fat can be fit, and that fit and healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.”

Move celebrates exercise in all its forms, with accessible features encouraging you to add movement into your day – because it’s not just good for the body, but the mind, too. We get it: workouts can be a bit of a slog, but there are ways you can move more without dreading it. Whether you love hikes, bike rides, YouTube workouts or hula hoop routines, exercise should be something to enjoy.

HuffPost / Rebecca Zisser