Every day we are bombarded with images of celebrities, models etc. with a “perfect” physique. Reality TV shows such as “The Biggest Loser” also help create outrageous expectations in their viewers’ minds. Because of this societal pressure, many of us have attached unrealistic body image standards to our sense of self-worth.
The purpose of this blog is to help explain the differences between “fitness” and “fatness”. I urge readers to approach their fitness program with a healthy understanding of both sides of the coin and to recognize their own fitness improvements, in addition to any body composition changes.
Fitness Independent of Body Composition
Research shows that fitness levels can improve largely independent of body composition…
- In an eight year study of men aged 30 to 80, men who were fit but overweight (as judged by cardiovascular tests) were two times less likely to die than men who were lean but not fit. The researchers found no difference in mortality rates between the fit but overweight groups, and the fit and normal weight groups! The take-home message is staying fit through exercise decreases the risk of all-cause mortality REGARDLESS of excess fat storage.
- In a 2011 study, it was found that increasing cardiorespiratory fitness resulted in significant reductions in all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease… again REGARDLESS of BMI.
Because there has to be a catch, right? Well, sort of, but not exactly.
The point that I am trying to make here is not that body composition doesn’t matter, but that it is not the ONLY thing that matters.
If you are exercising and maintaining your weight, you will still achieve immense health benefits, and this is something you should be proud of. However, this does not mean that you should throw body composition out the window completely and not care about it. These same studies also showed that if weight is not maintained, but GAINED, you will typically also lose fitness. In fact, in the previously mentioned 2011 study, those individuals who gained 10 to 20 pounds over adulthood showed significantly lower levels of fitness and increased mortality risk. Thus, there is a benefit to at least ensuring weight maintenance whether losing weight is a goal or not.
Additionally, most of these studies compare people at a “healthy” body composition to people that are “overweight” (as categorized by BMI). For these two groups, indeed there likely is little to no difference in health for people performing the same exercise routine. However, for those who fall closer to the “obese” category (BMI greater than 30), this does not hold true.
Essentially, there is a cut-off where a certain degree of excess fat begins to affect fitness, and this cut-off seems to be at relatively higher levels of body fat.
Take Home Message
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having body composition goals. The large majority of adults exercise to look good, in addition to being healthy.
However, it is important to sit back and look at the big picture when assessing your fitness results. If the pounds are not dropping as much, or as fast as you desire, realize that this doesn’t mean that you are not gaining anything from your hard work exercising!
Additionally, if watching nutrition and exercising regularly is not resulting in weight loss, take comfort in knowing that just avoiding weight gain through adulthood significantly reduces your health risk and mortality risk later in life!
Having body composition goals is great, but do not allow yourself to become so wrapped up in dropping a few pounds on the scale that you lose sight of all of the other health benefits derived from exercise. The worst thing that can happen is to become so worried about body composition goals, that not living up to your own (perhaps unrealistic) expectations for your body composition leads to a loss of motivation, and eventually falling off of your exercise routine!