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Chelsea wellness: Fitness matters more than weight

(Chelsea Update would like to thank Amy Heydlauff for this column.)

Recent research shows that being overweight and fit is better than being overweight and unfit.  It’s also better than thin and unfit.  Being thin or obese and unfit are about equally unhealthy.

A decade or so ago, a well-publicized study revealed that mice that were fed one-third fewer calories lived longer than a control group of mice. This is true of certain insects, too.  However, some well-meaning people assumed the same was true for you and me.

Recently, research on primates was released that said just the opposite for monkeys.  Monkeys who were underfed fared poorly.

On the heel of the ‘hungry monkey’ study comes research from a multitude of reputable institutions, including Northwestern University, UCLA and Boston University School of Medicine.  As you might expect, things are more complicated than one study of mice or monkeys.

For instance, in several studies, heavier patients with heart-and-liver failure fared better than those who were thin and had the same disease.  In particular, mild-to-moderate obesity poses no additional risk according to some studies.  In a five-year, Canadian study of 11,000 people, those who were overweight (note this is not the same as obese) had the lowest chance of dying from any cause.

According to current research, cardiovascular fitness is often a better predictor of mortality risk than weight. Think of cardiovascular fitness as the ability of the heart and lungs to tolerate moderate activity. It is the result of regular aerobic exercise like walking, biking, dancing, running, rowing, jumping rope and being the mother of little kids.  (Just kidding on that last one – unless you run, jump and chase the kids – which you probably do.)

This latest research should not make us complacent about our weight – just help us realize it’s only one measure of wellness. Remember, weight impacts quality of life.  For some, it’s the cause of joint pain or raises the risk of developing diabetes.  It has a tremendous impact on the self-esteem of many.

Of course, we don’t really need studies to tell us those who are fit are healthier than those who are not. Now what should we do?

Well, I guess we should take care of ourselves. Instead of resenting the trip to pull the trash to the curb, maybe we should look forward to it as an opportunity for an upper arm workout. Washing the car windows at the gas station can become an opportunity to stretch lazy obliques (the muscles along your waist). We could work toward touching our toes by stretching every time we dry off after a shower.

Find a way to exercise a little more than you do now and keep increasing that time until you are engaging in regular exercise – this may take years. If you fall away from exercising start back up as soon as your heart is in it.

If we really hope to become a culture of wellness, fitness will be necessary. Most of us want that for ourselves and for our children.

If you’d like to learn more about research on fitness and weight, see the Obesity Paradox article in The New York Times.

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