Most of us have gained weight during the pandemic. Afterall, we’ve been sitting all day doing zoom calls and eating more chips than ever before! Extra calories consumed and less calories burned is a sure way to gain weight. But does excess weight really matter? Can you be overweight but also be fit? It’s a debate that has been going on for years. New data suggests you unlikely can be both.
There is no shortage of people who carry excess weight but have impeccable blood pressure and cholesterol levels and no known health problems. Consider the example of professional athletes whose livelihoods are dependent on being heavy, such as football linemen or sumo wrestlers.
At first glance, it is easy to notice their rotund shape, but they also possess greater physical endurance and strength than the average person. On the other hand, some maintain a thin figure but eat poorly, seldom exercise, and have a host of health issues. Granted, most of us don’t train like professional athletes but it gets to the heart of the question: What matters more when it comes to health– weight or fitness?
Some studies do suggest that regular physical activity can mitigate some of the negative effects of being overweight, which does lend credibility to the idea of being both. Regardless of your weight, exercising regularly is sure to be a good thing. However, even when controlling for physical activity level, those who are overweight tend to be at higher risk of disease than their normal-weight peers.
Here are three reasons why being overweight does not always harmonize with being fit:
- Fat is a hormonally and metabolically active tissue – Fat cells do more than just add inches. They can influence the balance of hormones and energy systems in our bodies. For example, fat cells can increase cortisol levels, which can further contribute to weight gain, and can promote insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes. It can also release substances that contribute to a steady level of chronic inflammation in the body – which increases risk of some cancers.
- Excess weight, irrespective of fitness level, can be a risk factor for development of disease. While some people may be overweight but still maintain healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels, it is important to recognize that they are a snapshot of their present health status. The reality is that being chronically overweight carries the risk of developing other health problems in the future, although there is no way to predict exactly when that might occur. Health is about the long-term strategy. Some of these health problems include diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Certainly, maintaining a regular physical activity regimen to keep fit may delay the development of these conditions, but losing body fat is another important way to reduce the risk of developing them.
- Carrying extra fat can put undue stress on various body structures. Many discussions about fitness focus on cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of some cancers, but being overweight can also worsen back and joint pain. Chronic back and joint pains are significant causes of disability as we get older. Extra fat around the neck can also contribute to the development of obstructive sleep apnea by causing the airway to collapse while sleeping.
The COVID pandemic has taught us important lessons about the importance of self-care. It’s not just about our lifespan, but also our health span. That requires each of us to do our part in striving for a healthier lifestyle, whether that means eating more healthfully, exercising more consistently, or implementing better stress reduction techniques. While it’s possible to achieve good health despite being overweight, reducing excess body fat is yet another way to further optimize health and fitness and reduce the development of chronic disease.