Can you be fat but fit?

By: Robert Hicks

Source: Lard-630x417

Being overweight has received a bad rap over the years, and we’ve all been conditioned into thinking that overweight people are on a one-way trip to an early grave. Now some research may turn all that on its head. Maybe you can be fat but fit.

Too fat? 

A US government study states that being 25lb overweight — just under two stones — is not a contributing factor to specific heart diseases.

The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, analysed the body mass index (BMI) of people who died from various diseases. They concluded that being ‘somewhat overweight’ doesn’t necessarily raise your risk of dying from certain cancers and heart diseases.

In fact, in some cases, they believe that having a little extra weight actually seemed to help people survive some illnesses. They claim that overweight people were up to 40 per cent less likely than normal weight people to die from causes such as emphysema and pneumonia, right down to injuries and infections.

However simplistic these results may seem, they do back up the claims of another study, which was conducted in 2006. Dr James M. O’Brien Jr of the Ohio State University Medical Centre looked at 1,488 patients who were being treated for acute lung aliments at 84 hospitals over a period of six years.

Their results showed that people with a lower BMI were associated with higher odds of death, whereas overweight people were associated with lower odds.


Although these results do seem to show a significant correlation between extra weight and a better outcome of illnesses and subsequent death, the reasons for it are still somewhat unclear.

And we shouldn’t get too carried away — their research does warn that people who are classed as obese are more susceptible to risk of death and the development of pathological conditions such as diabetes and kidney failure.

What’s more, some experts believe that the studies may be flawed. Dr Robert Eckel, a spokesman for the American Heart Association, argued that the results might be misleading. For example, diabetes and heart disease often occur together and both often afflict overweight people. So when diabetes is listed as a cause of death, heart disease could have contributed, he said.

Thinner and faster? 

Virtually all cyclists are obsessed with their weight. After all, the thinner you are, the faster you go, right?

Some experts believe that this type of behaviour and attitude should really be seen as a minor case of ‘athlete anorexia nervosa’.

Unlike non-athletes, who generally view thinness as a goal in itself, anorexic athletes strive to slash their weight in the belief that an improvement in performance will follow.

This is particularly true in sports that emphasise leanness such as cycling. Thinness is deemed equivalent to fitness and therefore vital for performance.

Anorexic athletes

In the eyes of the athlete, achieving and maintaining low body weight is not seen as a disorder but instead a requirement for optimal performance and in turns becomes a significant factor in how they define success. The inability to control body weight is seen as a lack of self-control.

There is some anecdotal evidence that suggests extreme weight loss does contribute to an increase in performance.

Although the reasons for this temporary increase in performance are not fully understood, many experts believe it may be related to the initial physiological and psychological consequences of starvation. Dr M.D. Johnson, who in 1994 looked at eating disorders in athletic performance, found that starvation produces an “up-regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, better known as the fight or flight response”.

This would cause an increase in the adrenal hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine), which have stimulatory effects on the central nervous system. This increase in the level of hormones may produce a high-energy state and give the athlete a sense of excitability and exhilaration.

To sum up, just like being too fat, being too thin has its problems. Many people are very stubborn when it comes to weight issues, with the majority believing that someone who is too thin will always be healthier than someone who is too fat. However, this isn’t always the case.

The perfect weight: fat is a relative concept

We’ve told you the dangers of being too thin and too overweight but is there such a thing as the perfect weight?

All it takes is a quick search on the internet to be bombarded with ‘perfect weight’ products — 80+ million results in fact. All proclaim miracle weight loss, or to help you reach an aesthetically pleasing figure.

For a cyclist it’s all about how efficiently you can move on the bike without losing power. We all know fat is an oppressive burden when the gradient increases and doctors tell us it is important to be within a healthy weight range to avoid the many medical weight-related issues.

For a cyclist it is also essential to determine what discipline you want to achieve your goals in when calculating your perfect weight. Take Sir Bradley Wiggins’s transformation from a track rider to a lean, wiry road cyclist. While the scales said two very different numbers, Wiggins was the perfect weight at both disciplines.

So how do you determine the perfect weight for you? Monique Ryan, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, highlights setting realistic goals both in cycling and diet. How dedicated can you be based on your current commitments? Valuable energy can be lost pining for the days when you were younger and leaner, or hankering after unrealistic weight-to-power ratios to be like Alberto Contador or Wiggins. Ryan advises you to think about the leanest and most powerful you have been and your ability to hold that without becoming ill. This will help in setting a ‘perfect weight’ range for you.

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