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Fitness Is More Protective for Normal Weight People

Fitness Level

Story at-a-glance -

  • Normal-weight men of any fitness level had an up to 48 percent lower risk of premature death than the fittest obese men
  • The risk of early death was higher in fit obese individuals than in unfit normal-weight individuals
  • Past research found everyone benefited from even a modest increase in physical activity, regardless of whether they were normal weight, overweight or obese

By Dr. Mercola

Can you be fat but fit? To some extent, yes. However, new research suggests even the fittest obese person may still die sooner than an unfit person of normal weight. The results came after researchers from Umea University analyzed health and fitness records of more than 1.3 million men.

Over the nearly 30-year study period, men in the highest-ranking fitness level as adolescents had a 51 percent lower risk of dying prematurely compared to those in the lowest.

Further, normal-weight men of any fitness level had an up to 48 percent lower risk of premature death than the fittest obese men. The researchers concluded, "the risk of early death was higher in fit obese individuals than in unfit normal-weight individuals."1

Is 'Healthy Obesity' Possible?

In the last decade, researchers have been exploring the paradox of "metabolically healthy" overweight or obesity, which describes people who are carrying excess weight without any of the corresponding health problems that typically go along with it.

This is certainly possible, but it's probably not likely. In 2013, the results of an Annals of Internal Medicine study, which is among the most comprehensive on the topic to date, concluded there's no such thing as being "healthy" and obese.2

The study, a systematic review and meta-analysis that included data from more than 61,000 people, found that obese individuals were more likely to die sooner or have heart-related problems than people of normal weight — even if they were otherwise healthy. The researchers concluded:

"Compared with metabolically healthy normal-weight individuals, obese persons are at increased risk for adverse long-term outcomes even in the absence of metabolic abnormalities, suggesting that there is no healthy pattern of increased weight."

As for why past studies have supported the notion that you can be fit and fat, the featured study's lead author pointed out several problems with how some of the previous studies were set up:3

Some studies only looked at risk of adverse events rather than measures of metabolic health.

So if an overweight person avoided an adverse event during the study, they could be classified as healthy even though they may have had underlying signs of diabetes or high blood pressure that the study didn't look for.

Some studies compared healthy obese people to unhealthy obese people, instead of comparing them to healthy normal-weight people.

Some studies only used small groups of participants or short time periods, which may have missed problems in larger populations or that occur over time.

You'll Still Benefit from Exercise If You're Overweight or Obese

Even though the featured study found fit obese people may die sooner than unfit lean people, this in no way means you shouldn't bother exercising if you're carrying excess weight.

On the contrary, research from scientists with the University of Cambridge found everyone in the study benefited from a modest increase in physical activity, regardless of whether they were normal weight, overweight or obese.

In fact, the researchers believe that increasing exercise is even more important than reducing obesity in terms of public health.

Their data suggested that at least twice as many deaths occur due to a lack of exercise than due to obesity, which is really astounding, considering 1 in 5 U.S. deaths are associated with obesity.

Study author Ulf Ekelund from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge told TIME:4

"This is a simple message: just a small amount of physical activity each day could have substantial health benefits for people who are physically inactive."

Not to mention, while dietary changes are key for losing weight, exercise is important too — especially high-intensity interval training. Exercise, combined with healthy diet, will help you to lose excess weight, thereby boosting your health.

It leads to benefits aside from weight loss, too, like lowering inflammatory chemicals in your body and possibly reversing cognitive decline.

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What's the Best Type of Exercise for Weight Loss?

If you want to lose weight, get moving. If you're currently sedentary, virtually any type of activity will be helpful, whether that be walking, gardening or dancing. Even sitting less and standing more may reduce your obesity risk.

That being said, if you're ready to get serious about weight loss and fitness, certain strategies may work better than others. High-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves short periods of maximum exertion followed by a short period of rest, is among the best.

The superior effectiveness of HIIT has been confirmed by an ever-rising number of studies. In one study looking at high-intensity exercise for weight loss, 300 obese individuals were divided into three groups that exercised five times a week, doing:5

  • Low amounts (just over 30 minutes per session) of low-intensity exercise
  • High amounts (just under one hour/session) of low-intensity exercise
  • High amounts (40 minutes/session) of high-intensity exercise

A control group was included, in which no one exercised. (It's worth noting that the high-intensity group was doing quite a bit more than I and other HIIT experts recommend.

Recovery becomes more important when you do HIIT, and I generally only recommend 20 minutes of high-intensity exercise up to three times a week).

At the end of six months, all three groups of exercisers saw similar reductions in weight and waist circumference. On the whole, those who exercised had lost 5 to 6 percent of their body weight at the end of the study, equating to a 4- to 5-centimeter (1 ½ to 2 inches) reduction in waist circumference.

However, those who exercised at high intensity experienced a 9 percent improvement in glucose tolerance. Neither of the two low-intensity exercise groups saw any significant improvement in glucose tolerance. In fact, they remained on par with the control group, which did not exercise at all.

This is a noteworthy difference, as normalizing your glucose and insulin levels by optimizing insulin receptor sensitivity is one of the most important benefits of exercise, considering the fact that insulin resistance is a factor in most chronic disease, including diabetes and heart disease.

High-Intensity Exercise Produces Fat-Boosting Genetic Changes

Another reason to include HIIT in your workout regimen? A 2012 study published in the journal Cell Metabolism showed that when healthy but inactive people exercise intensely but briefly, it produces an immediate change in their DNA — some of which specifically promotes fat burning.6

As it turns out, intense exercise causes structural and chemical alterations to the DNA molecules within your muscles, and this contraction-induced gene activation leads to the genetic reprogramming of muscle for strength.

Other genes affected by intense exercise are involved in fat metabolism. Specifically, this study suggested that when you do high-intensity exercises, your body nearly immediately experiences genetic activation that increases the production of fat-busting proteins.

High-Intensity Strength Training for Weight Loss

In addition to high-intensity interval training, strength training is an excellent way to get rid of excess body fat, because working your muscles is the key to firing up your metabolism.

Your muscles follow the "use it or lose it" principle. The more muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate. So while your overall weight loss in terms of pounds may appear slower, you will tend to lose inches faster. This is in part because, unlike traditional cardio, strength training causes you to continue burning more calories for up to 72 hours after the exercise is over through a phenomenon called after-burn.

And when you use super slow weight training, you can even turn your strength-training workout into a high-intensity exercise. Best of all, you can do such exercises right in your own home. Here's one sample high-intensity strength training workout using only dumbbells and a chin-up bar:

With a rubber ball behind your back, hold a dumbbell in each hand, and do a static contraction; keep your hips flexed at 90 degrees, and your knees flexed at 90 degrees. Basically, you're in a sitting position without a chair underneath you and, with a weight in each hand, you simply hold that position statically for as long as you can.

Follow this with several very slow deep knee bends (squats). By that time, you'll be so fatigued that lifting your own body weight will be quite challenging. Do them to failure.

Next, use your dumbbells for an overhead shoulder press. Initiate the movement as gradually as you can and then move slowly, pressing the weight upward for 10 seconds or more, and lower it back down over a count of at least 10 seconds.

Do not rest at any point. In a short amount of time, you will fatigue your shoulder girdle. Select a weight that you can do 8 to 10 reps with to failure. If you can do more than 10 reps then you need a heavier weight; if you can't do 8, you need a lighter weight.

Biceps and triceps curls with one weight in each hand.

If you have a chin-up bar, do several chin-ups using an underhand grip (palms up), as slowly as you can, until fatigue. If you're not strong enough to do a chin-up, stand on a chair to reach the top of the bar, and simply hold yourself at the top position for as long as you can.

Using an underhand grip puts you in the strongest position for engaging all the muscles of your torso musculature. When your hand is supinated and at shoulder width, you're using your bicep in its strongest position.

If you have your hands out or pronated, you're actually using smaller muscles; you're using your brachialis and brachioradialis that are going to be a weak link in that movement and cause you to fatigue prematurely before you've challenged the bigger muscles in your torso.

Next, do one standard military-style push-up with your body in plank position. Start with arms straight. Go slowly down until your chest almost touches the floor. Then slowly push back up. If you're strong enough, use a very slow cadence of 10 seconds down, 10 seconds up.

If you're not strong enough, you can do push-ups from your knee, or you can do them up against the countertop, where your entire plank torso is on an incline to decrease the resistance.

Are You Serious About Losing Weight?

Dietary sugar, especially fructose, is a significant "tripper of your fat switch," which is why, if you are serious about losing weight, you'll need a comprehensive plan that includes the following. This plan will help most people to lose weight but, also, it will help you to gain metabolic health and fitness. So even if your weight is normal, you can follow this plan to ensure you're metabolically healthy and fit as well.

  • Eliminate or strictly limit fructose in your diet, and follow the healthy eating program described in my comprehensive nutrition plan.
  • You can also use intermittent fasting strategically with this program to greatly boost your body's fat-burning potential. In short, keep your eating to a window of six to eight hours each day and stop eating at least three hours before bedtime.
  • Engage in high-intensity Peak Fitness exercise and/or super slow strength training to burn fat and increase muscle mass (a natural fat burner).
  • Address the emotional component of eating. For this I highly recommend the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), which helps eliminate your food cravings naturally.