Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Fatness and lack of fitness are easily misconstrued

By George Brooks

It's really all about fitness!! Fatness and lack of fitness are easily misconstrued.  It is possible to be heavy, strong and healthy. And, it is possible to be unhealthy, underweight and weak.  As we and others have shown, with proper exercise and sound nutrition it is possible to make major changes in fitness parameters and risk factors for chronic diseases without major changes in body weight.

My personal view that in many instances, overemphasis on body weight and dieting (meaning food restriction) are destructive, and counter-productive.  Even athletes seeking to cut body weight by dietary restriction can set themselves up for long-term disability.  Rather, people need to be educated about, and encouraged to pursue healthful dietary and physical activity habits.  As well, people need to be educated about the hazards of contemporary lifestyles that discourage movement, keep us from interacting with the environment and surround us with too much and poor quality food.

While it is possible to be fit and fat, given the opportunity to chose one or the other, the obvious choice would be for fitness over fatness.  But, such a conclusion still misses the point; this is not an either-or situation.  The key thing is to be fit and healthy.  The Institute of Medicine panel that I served on reviewed the literature related to nutrition and physical activity; we concluded that daily physical activity in an amount equivalent to 60 minutes of vigorous walking was necessary to promote physical fitness, reduce risks of chronic diseases and control body weight.

Still, questions such as those posted on the blog arise continuously. There are multiple reasons why questions related to fitness and fatness persist, but certainly data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) give impetus.  The data from the CDC show that we in the U.S. have a growing epidemic in obesity that predisposes us to chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.  On a population-wide basis, Body Mass Index (BMI) data are the most accurate available, but health care professionals can discriminate between athletes and couch potatoes with the same BMI. Most cases health care professionals can make a prediction about a person's current and future health in minutes simply by measuring abdominal girth and blood pressure.  Certainly, blood tests for sugar and lipid contents and other factors are necessary and informative, but with an educated eye a health care professional can make an accurate assessment of a patient in minutes with, or without BMI assessment.

Given the joys of being outside in fresh air and sunshine, hiking in the hills and mountains or along our beaches, riding bicycles along country roads, or partaking in sports and games, it is a wonder that more folks do not participate for sake of their emotional health.

Given the costs associated with treating diabetes, high blood pressure and lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) in an aging and ever more sedentary and fatter population, we need resurgence in helping and encouraging our citizens to make healthier food and physical activity choices.  With the various special interest groups ranging from agribusiness to big pharma and the AARP to placate, Congress diddles and no one asks the question, "who pays for the lack of fitness?"