We have a huge problem in this country. And I’ll bet you’ll be surprised when I say it’s not a weight problem. Growing waistlines have been the reality for over 30 years. There has been no shortage of diets, drugs, surgeries and supplements in response. Let me state the obvious – they haven’t worked, aren’t working and probably won’t work. Chasing that elusive number on the scale or garment tag is a false goal, but we chase anyway. Some of us manage to starve our way to that magic number but, more often than not, it’s a fleeting victory. No, we don’t have a weight problem, we have a body image problem. We equate fatness with poor health and everything that is bad and thinness with good health and everything that is good. Finally, scientific studies are turning these old assumptions on their heads.
I have been seeing this phenomenon play out in my industry publications but the idea that one can be overweight and fit (and, conversely, normal weight and unfit) is finally reaching the mainstream media. Not a moment too soon, I say. I was nearly giddy when I read “Fat But Fit? Study Reveals That Fitness, Not Weight, Predicts Risk of Early Death” in the Huffington Post. There’s a reason why I carefully chose the name of my business and blog – Fit & Happier – as opposed to “Thin and Happier.” My philosophy is a balanced diet and exercise program are entirely about being healthy and have little or nothing to do with a number on the scale or dress size. I am thrilled to see that science is validating how I live my life, what I model to my daughters, and what I teach my clients.
Women especially have fallen victim to this “thin equals fit” falsehood over the decades. We are conditioned to believe Barbie and Victoria’s Secret models are the ideal of beauty and health. Beauty, of course, is subjective. But fitness is quantifiable and my area of expertise and I can tell you, unequivocally, these women are not models of fitness. Six foot women weighing 120 lbs with wafer thin bodies having no hint of the muscle that is supposed to be there aren’t the pictures of good health. We do ourselves and our daughters a disservice if we give any credence to this preposterous lie.
The truth is found in science. Obesity has been linked to all kinds of diseases in study after study. The conclusion has been that obesity itself puts one at higher risk for certain diseases and, therefore, raises the likelihood of premature death. But what these new studies suggest is that, while obesity and certain diseases tend to exist together, having an above average BMI (body mass index) may not be the cause of life-threatening ailments after all. Furthermore, being unfit – poor diet and sedentary lifestyle – is more likely the culprit for higher risk. In other words, the old train of thought says that weight in relation to one’s height (BMI) is the best predictor of disease risk and mortality. The new emerging train of thought is that level of fitness is the best predictor, no matter the person’s weight.
Before you do a happy dance with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, remember the key word here is fitness – regular exercise and a balanced diet. According to some studies, people who are overweight and fit are at lower risk of premature death compared to thin and unfit persons. Put another way, in terms of health and longevity, as long as you’re living a fit life, it doesn’t matter if you’re thin or fat. More studies need to be done before we can embrace this idea fully. Nevertheless, what we’ve learned thus far is encouraging news for millions of people.
It will take a mighty tide to change the way our society views body image and body weight, but studies like these are capable of providing the necessary catalyst. I cringe at weight-loss programs that tell people everyone has a “thin” person inside of them. My motto at Fit & Happier is that there is a fit person inside every one of us. We need to stop beating ourselves up over numbers – pounds, sizes, measurements – and start living fit lives. Fitness gives us energy, vitality, a healthier reproductive system and more fulfilling sex life to go along with it, restful sleep, a more positive outlook, a better quality of life, and, apparently, more of it – a fit and happier life. When you’re living a life like that, who cares what size that life wears?