Fitness vs. "Fatness," The New Reality
I am rising up in defense of fat. I know, this is counterintuitive for a gym owner and seems to defy common sense, but the popular movement toward "thin is in" drives me to address this issue. We have a national fascination with skinny (the South notwithstanding). Our actresses get tinier and tinier, our models look like pipe cleaners, the weight loss supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar monster and celebrities who slap on a few pounds are mocked and derided in the media ( Jessica Simpson; you look just fine, girl). There is a poverty of self-image that is driving us mad.
But "thin" and "fit" are not words that form an absolute marriage, nor are the words "fat" and "unhealthy" synonymous. Research done over the last several years indicate that one can actually be overweight and healthy at the same time. In fact,
Active obese individuals actually have lower morbidity and mortality than normal weight individuals who are sedentary...the health risks of obesity are largely controlled if a person is physically active and physically fit.
- The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, 2000 -
Interesting. It seems that, while obesity is generally accepted as a negative health factor, it's the lack of physical activity that is the critical component in one's health.
"Consistently, physical inactivity was a better predictor of all-cause mortality than being overweight or obese."
-Annals of Epidemiology, 2002
So, why bring this up? Well, because I live in Los Angeles, and the obsession with thin-ness supercedes interest in fitness. I can't tell you how many times I've overhead someone in the gym say, upon observing someone who is thin: "I wish I looked like that so I wouldn't have to work out."
Now, there are many things wrong with this statement, but here are the critical two:
1. Maybe he/she (it's almost always a "she." Sorry ladies, but it's true) is thin in part because he/she works out.
2. Without exercise, it doesn't matter how thin you are, you are going to die early and live less vibrantly along the way. You can argue this point with me all you want, but you can't argue with myriad scientists and doctors who have compiled mountains of incontestable data that proves this to be true. Besides, thin people who don't exercise look like they don't exercise; doughy, soft, malleable, thereby ruining their "thin-ness" from an aesthetic vantagepoint. But that's just my opinion.
"[A] fit man carrying 50 pounds of body fat had a death rate less than one-half that of an unfit man with only 25 pounds of body fat."
-Harvard Health Policy Review, 2003
I have a friend who used to be a trainer who could run a marathon, do a hundred pushups and generally outperform most people and he looked like the Michellin Man. He was fit as hell, he just looked like ten miles of bad road.
"Unfit, lean men had twice the risk of all-cause mortality as did fit, lean men and also had higher risk of all-cause mortality when compared with fit, obese men. The all-cause mortality rate of fit, obese men was not significantly different from that of fit, lean men … In summary, we found that obesity did not appear to increase mortality risk in fit men. For long-term health benefits we should focus on improving fitness by increasing physical activity rather than relying only on diet for weight control."
-American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1999
So, here's the deal: I know everyone wants to be thin and fabulous. I know we are a culture of people who speak in gossipy whispers when in the presence of the overweight. I'm not encouraging people to go out and gain weight. Typically, overweight and obesity are associated with inactivity and that's double-trouble. What I am saying is that thin isn't everything and, when possessed by someone who doesn't exercise, is worthless.
Why don't we try focusing on the FITNESS for a while, forget about THIN for a while, and maybe THIN will happen along the way. In that case, at least we'd be able to watch our kids grow up, live long and prosperous lives, and attend the funerals of all of those fabulous people who did everything to become thin except exercise, but didn't live long enough to enjoy it.
Jonathan Aluzas is the owner of Arena Fitness, a personal training, semi private training and group exercise studio in Encino, California.