Obese people who are physically fit are still significantly more likely to die young than people of normal weight who are in poor shape, according to new study in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
“In recent years, the concept of ‘fat but fit’ has emerged, implying that high fitness can compensate for obesity,” the researchers write.
The new findings add to a growing body of evidence increasingly refuting this idea.
Exercise provides important health benefits, and just 30 minutes five times per week is more effective at preventing and managing chronic diseases than any drug known. And obesity is a major risk factor for many of the same diseases that exercise helps stave off, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
But increasingly, the evidence is making it clear that these two risk factors do not cancel each other out. To be healthy, you should eat well and get plenty of exercise.
Fit or not, obesity kills
The new study was conducted on more than one million Swedish men who were first examined between 1969 and 1996, at the age of 18. Upon entry into the study, all men completed a high-intensity cycling test to gauge their physical fitness. The men were followed until December 31, 2012.
The study is one of the first to examine the connection between aerobic fitness and health in younger men.
The researchers found that, as expected, the 20 percent of men with the highest aerobicfitness were 48 percent less likely to die during the study period than the 20 percent with the lowest fitness. More surprisingly, the protective effect of fitness was actually strongest for suicide and drug abuse-related deaths. Also surprising, men with low fitness were significantly more likely to die from traumatic injury than more fit men.
Obesity significantly degraded the protective benefits of high fitness, however. Theresearchers found that the more obese a man was, the less protection he gained from being fit. And the most obese participants all had similar health outcomes to each other, regardless of how fit they were.
The researchers also found that obese men who were also among the 20 percent with the highest fitness, were actually more likely to die early than all men of normal weight – even the most out of shape.
The researchers acknowledge that the study was limited by looking only at young men. Nevertheless, the findings challenge “the currently held idea that obese individuals can fully compensate mortality risk by being physically fit.”
‘Fat but fit’ – Junk food company propaganda?
Fast food companies have seized on – and to some extent, fabricated – the idea that fitness compensates for obesity and a poor diet. In a recent editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, scientists from the University of California-Davis, University of Cape Town, Sports Science Institute of South Africa and Frimley Park Hospital in the United Kingdom, accuse fast food companies of using tactics similar to those of Big Tobacco to downplay the lethal effects of their products.
Among the other lies promoted by these companies is the idea that poor physical fitness is the major risk factor for diabetes and heart disease.
The editorial’s authors single out as particularly egregious the practice of ad campaigns using sports images to sell sugary drinks and junk foods. “The ‘health halo’ legitimization of nutritionally deficient products must end,” they write.
The purpose of all these tactics is to conceal the well proven fact that poor diet – even in the absence of obesity – is perhaps the single greatest risk factor for poor health. According to a study in The Lancet, poor diet causes more disease globally than lack of exercise, alcohol and smoking combined.