Scientists behind the new research reviewed a bunch of studies conducted since the 1950s and found that people who had a higher-than-recommended body mass index (BMI) were more likely to die from heart disease compared to people with normal BMIs Are Metabolically Healthy Overweight and Obesity Benign Conditions? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Kramer, C.K., Zinman, B., Retnakaran, R. Annals of Internal Medicine 2013 December 3;159(11):758-69.. Those findings held true even when the researchers compared overweight participants who were metabolically healthy (as in, they didn’t have high cholesterol or blood pressure) to normal-weight participants who were also metabolically healthy.
The scientists who led the new study say earlier studies came to faulty conclusions possibly because they compared healthy obese people to unhealthy obese people; because they missed signs of diabetes or hypertension in overweight participants; or because they only studied the participants for short time periods.
Another way to explain the idea that someone can be overweight but otherwise healthy is that what’s on the scale may not be the most important factor when measuring good health. Some scientists suggest lack of exercise might raise the risk of heart disease more than excess body fat. In one study with 906 women, researchers found that participants with lower levels of fitness showed a clearer connection to cardiovascular problems than those who were overweight (measured by BMI)Being fit is more important than being fat for women and heart disease. Spurgeon, D. British Medical Journal, 2004 September 18; 329(7467): 644.. Other health experts say those who are less-than-ripped but still fit may have a lesser risk for cardiovascular disease than their skinny-but-sedentary peers. Ultimately, fitness capacity may be more critical than body mass index to prevent heart disease risk.
It’s also possible that, when it seems that the scale is stubbornly stuck, all that exercising may be fueling an appetite that leads to consuming too many calories. Another common setback: Doing the same workout over and over may no longer challenge the body.
The big-bottomed line? Even if we’re exercising, we can still carry some extra baggage. Exercise burns calories, but at the end of the day, stay mindful of how many calories are taken in, or if that workout regimen needs some variation. And remember, being fit isn’t all about appearances, and the benefits of working out are more than skin deep.
Do you usually assume that someone who appears to be overweight can’t possibly be physically fit? Let us know in the comments below.
Photo by Ben Draper
This article has been read and approved by Greatist Expert Vicki Vara.
This article originally posted February 2012. Updated December 2013.