Take two people, one overweight, one not, and stand them side by side.
Next, ask passers-by to choose which of the two they think is the most physically fit. Most will probably select the thinner person on the assumption - mistaken, as it turns out - that it's impossible to be both overweight and in shape.
After all, how can the term ``in shape'' be applied to someone whose very shape fails to conform to society's image of physical fitness?
But researchers who study exercise physiology have, over the past few years, come to the surprising conclusion that it is possible to be both fit and fat. And a small but growing number of fitness experts have begun preaching the gospel that it's better to be overweight and active than to be thin and sedentary.
Long-term weight loss is an admirable goal, but it's extremely difficult,'' says Dr. Tim Church, medical director of the Dallas-based Cooper Institute, where much of the earliest research on fitness and obesity was conducted, says Church.We'd all like to lose 10, 15 pounds or more. But even if you can't lose that extra weight, you can still get the benefits of being physically active.''
In other words, exercise is good for everyone, no matter how much he or she weighs.
But what about all those studies that link obesity to heart disease, diabetes and a raft of other illnesses?
Most don't take into account whether the people in the study were physically active or not,'' Church responds.That's like studying cancer and not asking the subjects whether they smoke or not.''
Church was the lead author in two recent studies that did take physical activity into account. The first, published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, looked at fitness, body weight and levels of C-Reactive Protein, a risk factor for heart disease.
It found the most physically fit men had the lowest CRP, suggesting they were less likely to have a heart attack. More surprising, however, was that these findings held true regardless of weight. In other words, the fittest overweight men had lower CRP levels than the sedentary thin ones.
The second study involved diabetic men and was published in Diabetes
Care. It found that the more physically fit these men were, the less likely they were to die during the course of the trial. And the fat-but-physically-fit diabetics were less likely to die than the thin, unfit ones.
The idea that you can be fat and fit has been quietly gaining credence in the scientific community.
Just because you're fat doesn't mean you can't - or shouldn't - exercise and enjoy all the health benefits that come with fitness.
Yvonne Hester is convinced. The 31-year-old nursing student and divorced mother of two has struggled with her weight for as long as she can remember.
I was never very active and was a bad eater,'' she says.I'd try to lose weight, but it always came back.''
By 1998, she was so depressed about her collapsing marriage, she tipped the scales at 288 pounds.
Finally last summer, she started working out regularly, hitting the gym at least five days a week. And while she has lost weight - she's down to
222 pounds at 5 foot 4 - she's accepted the fact that she'll always be more Rubensesque than Kate Moss-like.
``I come from a family of heavyset people, so I know I'll never be a size 3. I'll be happy to be a 12 or 14.''
For many, however, weight loss remains the primary goal of physical exercise. For example, the President's Council on Physical Fitness includes the ratio of fat-to-lean body mass as one of five components to fitness. (The others are muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and aerobic endurance.)
And, as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance Web site points out, despite a 1992 National Institutes of Health report that overweight people benefit greatly from exercise, most doctors and fitness professionals see losing weight as the be-all and end-all of a physical fitness regimen.
The rank and file of fitness instructors have by no means gotten this message,'' says Jennifer Portnick, a San Francisco aerobics instructor who made headlines in 2002 when she was denied certification to teach Jazzercise because the company said she weighed too much.But that's in part because the culture continues to equate thinness with health.''
The good news, then, is that while it's hard to lose weight and keep it off, anyone can exercise.
In her book ``Fit and Fat'' (Alpha, $16.95), Sally Edwards recommends finding an activity you enjoy and doing it every day.
``Start off slow and gradually increase your intensity,'' suggests
Edwards, spokesperson for the Danskin Women's Triathlon. ``If you can only walk for 10 minutes at a time, do that and work up from there.''
Whatever your weight, once you get moving you'll soon start feeling better, both physically and emotionally. ``Usually within two to three weeks you'll find yourself sleeping better, having more energy and even feeling more positive about yourself and those around you.''
(The San Antonio Express-News web site is at http://www.express-news.net)
c.2004 San Antonio Express-News