‘Fat but healthy’ is a myth, new research on weight and heart health concludes

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SOPHIA ANTIPOLIS, France — Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but when it comes to health, a new study finds excess fat is never in fashion. Researchers with the European Society of Cardiology say the idea of being “fat and healthy” is a myth. They say the theory that staying active can counteract the negative effects of obesity is false and even overweight people who exercise still suffer from poorer heart health.

The notion that weight has less bearing on overall health is championed by the body positivity movement, which seeks to end the stigma surrounding being overweight. While fresh analysis of data on more than 520,000 adults does suggest exercise helps to reduce the odds of developing hypertension and diabetes, researchers find being overweight still significantly raises the risk of heart attack and stroke.

In fact, compared to inactive normal weight people, those who are active and obese are still around twice as likely to have high cholesterol. These individuals are four times more likely to have diabetes and five times more likely to have high blood pressure.

“One cannot be ‘fat but healthy,'” Dr. Alejandro Lucia from the European University of Madrid declares in a media release.

“This was the first nationwide analysis to show that being regularly active is not likely to eliminate the detrimental health effects of excess body fat. Our findings refute the notion that a physically active lifestyle can completely negate the deleterious effects of overweight and obesity.”

Is ‘fat but fit’ really the same as ‘thin but unfit’?

The research team adds there is some evidence fitness might reduce the impact of excess body weight on heart health. This has led to the debate over whether “fat but fit” might be similar to being “thin but unfit” when it comes to heart health.

“This has led to controversial proposals for health policies to prioritize physical activity and fitness above weight loss. Our study sought to clarify the links between activity, body weight, and heart health,” Dr. Lucia says.

The study examined 527,662 working adults insured by a large occupational risk prevention company in Spain. Study authors separated the participants into three weight groups; with 42 percent in the “normal weight” category, 41 percent in the “overweight” group, and 18 percent classified as “obese.”

The average age of participants was 42 years-old and just under a third were women. To determine if they were getting enough exercise, researchers used World Health Organization guidelines of 150 minutes per week of walking or at least 75 minutes per week of more vigorous activities like jogging.

Study authors also grouped participants by activity level; listing people as either “regularly active,” “insufficiently active,” or “inactive.”

Exercise helps, but weight loss is better

While the positive health effects of exercise are undeniable, the results still point to risks of being overweight or obese.

“More activity is better, so walking 30 minutes per day is better than walking 15 minutes a day,” Dr. Lucia reports. “Exercise does not seem to compensate for the negative effects of excess weight. This finding was also observed overall in both men and women when they were analyzed separately.”

“Fighting obesity and inactivity is equally important; it should be a joint battle. Weight loss should remain a primary target for health policies together with promoting active lifestyles,” the researcher concludes.

The findings appear in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

SWNS writer William Janes contributed to this report.