‘Fat but fit’ is absolutely possible

Despite what clicky headlines want you to believe.
Going up stairs
Bruno Nascimento/Unsplash

Horking down cheese doodles and chocolate milk every night isn’t good for you. Hopefully this doesn’t come as a surprise. But what apparently does come as a surprise to many people is the fact that the chubby guy on the treadmill might be healthier than that skinny dude vegging out on his couch.

Skinny dude doesn’t want to believe that. He’s always been thin, he’ll probably always be thin. He doesn’t get out of breath going up stairs. He plays frisbee with his buddies. And it’s these kind of misguided people who like to write headlines like “Fat but fit is a big fat myth.” Because hey, how else are we supposed to feel better about ourselves?

The “fat but fit” debate has been raging for years now, and it’s certainly far from over. That being said, a lot of research is in—and so far it says that overweight people can absolutely be healthier than thin people who don’t exercise. That’s not to say that everyone with extra fat who works out is in better shape than every lazy person who never hits the gym. Even setting aside the genetic factors that help determine our health status, there are plenty of people who don’t work out but who are nevertheless in perfect shape. Just like there are fat people who have excellent health markers and don’t end up with heart problems. Like so much else in the medical world, it’s a spectrum.

So when every media outlet picks up a story based on unpublished research presented at a conference, they’re largely ignoring the body of evidence. Years of scientific investigation has shown time and again that while extra body fat isn’t ideal, exercise has positive impacts no matter your weight. And sometimes those impacts are large enough to offset the negative effects of being overweight.

Exercise makes you healthier. Period.

There was this 2011 study showing that “a large segment of the overweight and obese population is not at increased risk for premature death.” And another one from 2011 showing that a well-rounded diet and moderate exercise changed the ways that obese patients’ bodies functioned and that “these lifestyle-induced adaptations occur independently of changes in body weight or body fat.” Then in 2014 there was a study that found “Physical activity has a protective effect on biomarkers in normal, overweight, and obese individuals, and overweight (not obese) active individuals have a similar cardiovascular profile than normal weight inactive individuals.” Or what about this massive 2015 study showing that “only those individuals that were inactive were at a significantly increased risk for all-cause mortality independent of overweight/obesity status.” And there was yet another 2015 study finding that “overweight or obese individuals who are fit/active tend to have morbidity and mortality rates that are at least as low, and in some cases lower, than normal weight individuals who are unfit/inactive.”

Yes, excess weight can harm you

Not every study has sided so resoundingly with the pro-fat-but-fit side of things. One large 2010 study. concluded that “a small percentage of U.S. adults can be considered fit but fat, and that obesity is independently associated with reduced cardiovascular fitness.” There are some biological reasons to suspect that just having excess body fat can harm you. Some cellular research has suggested that the fat cells in obese people are fundamentally different from those of normal weight people. But other studies have also found that you can be overweight and still have the fat cells of a thin person.

Excess belly fat seems to be especially bad for you. People with large waistlines have significantly higher mortality rates than their slim counterparts, though again, this holds true even if you have a non-obese BMI.

You can absolutely be fat but fit, even if fat but fit isn’t ideal

The question here isn’t whether being a normal weight and exercising and eating well is better for you overall than being overweight and exercising and eating well. On the whole, thin and in-shape people will be healthier than obese and in-shape people. That’s just not really what the fat-but-fit debate is about, or should be about.

The more relevant question is whether you can see health improvements just by exercising and eating better, even if the pounds don’t come flying off. And the answer to that is a resounding yes. Will these rules hold true 100 percent of the time? Of course not. Statistics mostly mean nothing to the individual. But if you’re a few (or many) pounds heavier than you’d like to be and feeling down about how hard it is to shed the extra weight, you can certainly take comfort in knowing that your body’s health is improving regardless of your shape. Losing weight can be good, but getting healthy is always great.