For many years it has been assumed that folks who are a little heavier can still be healthy if they exercise regularly. Now, this may be true in some regards, but a new Swedish study—examining 1.3 million men—suggests that “fit fat” does not necessarily reduce risk of early death.
The study observed these men from the age of 18 for a duration of, on average, 29 years later into adulthood. All of these men had joined the armed forces which allowed the researchers to get a look at their fitness tests, weight, height, and other health measurements.
The goal was to see which of these men were obese and then to look at death records, later in life to see which, if any, died from cancer and heart disease. Finally, they attempted to see if there was a correlation between obesity and early death factors.
According to Umea University’s Professor Peter Nordstrom, “Unfit normal-weight individuals had a 30 per cent lower risk of death from any cause than fit obese individuals,” adding, “Low aerobic fitness in late adolescence is associated with an increased risk of early death.”
Professor Nordstrom goes on to say, “Furthermore, the risk of early death was higher in fit obese individuals than unfit normal weight individuals,” noting that these findings actually contradicted the standing belief that “obese individuals can fully compensate mortality risk by being physically fit.”
Indeed, he concludes that being slimmer (having a low body mass index) is more important than fitness—in regards to premature death risk.
He attests, “These results suggest that low BMI early in life is more important than high physical fitness, with regard to reducing the risk of early death.”
In addition, Harvard University School of Public Health nutrition and health expert, Walter Willett comments, “It’s clear that both fitness and fatness are important. It’s definitely good to be as fit as possible no matter what your body weight. But it’s also clear that it is optimum to be both lean and fit. It shouldn’t be a question of one or the other.”
It is important, though, to also consider other risk factors like smoking when looking at overall risk of early death, the researchers remind.