Can You Really Be Overweight and Still Be Fit?

Macaela Mackenzie
by Macaela Mackenzie
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Can You Really Be Overweight and Still Be Fit?

“Fit” is a loaded word without a standard definition. Ask a doctor, and they’ll cite stats about metabolic health. Ask an athlete, and they’ll measure fitness by triathlon times and PRs. Ask a member of the fashion industry, and they’ll point to magazine covers and swimsuit models.

That’s why it’s no surprise that the question of whether you can actually be “fat and fit” is so hotly debated. Take, for example, the controversy over plus-size model Ashley Graham on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s iconic swimsuit issue or the technically obese NFL lineman Vince Wilfork holding his own in ESPN the Magazine’s body issue.

The debate isn’t confined to pop-culture magazine covers or social-media fat-shaming. There’s discord in the medical community as well about just how accurate static measures like body mass index are when it comes to giving a precise assessment of health.

So can you actually be both heavy and healthy? According to the experts and the latest research, the answer is technically yes — but there are some major caveats.

“It may sound cliché, but it’s literally what is on the inside that counts,” says Niket Sonpal, MD, assistant clinical professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City. “Overall fitness is not just about the sheer numbers of weight-to-height ratio; it’s also about other factors like cardiovascular health, waist circumference, blood sugar levels, etc.”

As it stands, BMI, which is calculated by a ratio of height to weight, tends to be the go-to measure to classify someone as “fat” or not. But that ratio is a pretty narrow measure. It’s not at all unusual for an Olympic athlete or marathoner with a lot of muscle mass to fall into the “overweight” or even “obese” category, which is why a lot of medical professionals call bs on using BMI as an accurate measure of health. (Remember, muscle will up the number on the scale faster than added fat will.)

In fact, earlier this year, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that overall, the healthiest individuals — which were defined as individuals with the lowest early mortality rates — were actually those in the “overweight” BMI category. The study used data spanning four decades from over 100,000 participants and found that the BMI associated with the lowest risk of early mortality was 27. That’s squarely in the “overweight” category. In other words, they found that the “fat” people in the study were actually fitter than those of “normal” weight.

How is that possible? Sonpal says the measures of cardiovascular and metabolic health are the most important when it comes to determining an individual’s level of fitness. Those numbers will always trump the number on the scale. So if an “overweight” individual has stellar cardiovascular health, they might be considered fitter and healthier than a slimmer person who gets winded after running a mile.

“The way to measure if someone is truly ‘fit’ is through their blood pressure, resting heart rate, blood sugar, exercise tolerance, body fat percentage and other biomarkers to collectively assess health,” he says. “We need to look more at the functional ability as opposed to a static view. Your BMI is just a snapshot.”

This is largely why so many elite athletes dominate in competition despite a super high BMI. Call it the Vince Wilfork phenomenon.

“Athletes generally have a lower body-fat percentage — that is, more muscle — than the general population, says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD , who specializes in sports nutrition. “An athlete’s weight may be higher, but most of that weight comes from muscle, as opposed to fat. In this case, BMI is not a good indicator of weight or health status.”

This isn’t a free pass to start packing on the pounds or adopting unhealthy eating habits. “Overweight is not synonymous with unhealthy,” says Sonpal. “But we do know that carrying a lot of weight puts stress on your joints and puts more stress on your metabolic health.” In reality, when you start gaining weight, your metabolic health will likely start declining.

So what’s the bottom line? You can technically be heavy and healthy. Body fat is a factor that weighs on overall fitness, but it is not the only factor. As Sonpal stresses, no single measure — whether that’s BMI or the number on the scale — can give you a full picture of health. So when it comes to setting health goals to achieve a greater level of fitness, make sure the focus is on what your body can accomplish rather than how it looks.

About the Author

Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie

Macaela is a writer based in New York City with a passion for all things active. When she’s not writing about the weirdest fitness trends or nutrition news, you can find her conquering her fear of heights at the rock climbing gym, hitting the pavement in Central Park or trying to become a yogi. To see Macaela’s latest work, visit macaelamackenzie.com.

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16 responses to “Can You Really Be Overweight and Still Be Fit?”

  1. Avatar Christin S. says:

    Stress on the joints? Yes.
    I’m healthy. Passed my Health Screening – healthy heart, blood pressure, blood glucose, good cholesterol high, bad cholesterol low, passed BMI etc. Health Age is 18, and I’m 33.
    But I am about 10 pounds overweight.

    • Avatar Ruth says:

      Yes but Healthy and fit are not the same thing. You can run marathons and eat mc ds chicken nuggets all the time.

      • Avatar st0815 says:

        That claim is backed up by exactly nothing.

        • Avatar Cameron Underwood says:

          What about Marshan Lynch eating skittles during a football game? What about guys and gals that eat like absolute shit but don’t gain a pound? The aren’t healthy but they appear physically fit. I’m 5’10 195 and don’t look like I can run or have any cardio but in reality I’m in the Marine corps and have a high level of cardiovascular fitness.

  2. Avatar Ruth says:

    The easy answer is yes you can be overweight and “fit” though there is no actual definition of fit. Body fat really has nothing to do with exercise and everything to do with diet. Fitness is essentially the opposite. Will one impact the other? Yes but they don’t define the other.

  3. Avatar st0815 says:

    Hey brilliant, we found another genius who has discovered that the BMI doesn’t apply to Olympic athletes. That will come in useful to all the Olympic athletes who use myfitnesspal and weren’t aware of that.

    Now for the rest of us: the BMI is pretty darn accurate for the vast majority of the population. Maybe the BMI will show you are obese when you should still actually be placed at the upper end of the overweight category – big deal.

    • Avatar Rebecca Nixon says:

      I’m tiny (UK size 8, 26-inch waist) and in great shape and my BMI was obese up until recently when I lost a couple of kg and got down into the “overweight” category. I’m still there. I was so upset when I was classified as obese. I went to the doctor who assured me I was fine. BMI could push healthy people into disordered eating. Seriously, no-one would look at me and even think “chubby” let alone obese! I don’t know why you consider yourself to be such an expert but you’re coming off as seriously arrogant.

  4. Avatar ES says:

    That a yes or no?

  5. Avatar Jim says:

    What competitive marathon runner is obese? Or overweight? Have you actually seen a competitive distance runner? They are all on the low end of healthy the BMI range.

  6. Avatar Geoff Niehaus says:

    I always knew BMI was garbage. In college I had my body fat measured at 6%. I worked out every day and ate very healthy, yet my BMI score for a man said I was overweight…

  7. Avatar MA says:

    Hello, my name is Joe Doe and I’m obese… Catchy.
    Here is the thing with the above posting on obesity and athletes: it doesn’t say how the BMI is calculated. An athlete will be heavier than average and since the tables are for average people, of course you will assume their BMI is high! To measure BMI accurately one must use a scientific instrument: either a sonogram probe, a pinch meter or the water immersion tub. The author obviously is just making a priori assumptions based on calculations derived purely from weight and BMI tables. So yes the article is bogus. But there is a concept out there saying that SOME obese people can be considered fit or healthy. I will expand a little on that, if you would like to read about it, or you can just hang up now.
    There is a difference between apparently fit and medically fit. The problem is that some medical problems which would disqualify one as medically unfit may go undetected due to sedentarism or complacency in one’s life. And one’s life is one’s own, so I won’t be critical.
    I was and am apparently healthy and felt apparently fit (kind of) for a while… In my late fifties with an initial BMI of 41% (now 35%, working on it), an initial weight of 304lb (now 286lb, working on it), no regular medications, perfect blood pressure, perfect cholesterol levels (LHL was a little low), a little high triglycerides, low range on vitamin D, but still normal, you get the drift.
    But was also steadily losing conditioning and flexibility (not so much now, working on it). The thing is that I every time I went for routine checkups I got kudos from nurses and doctors and said it was amazing I had no need for regular prescription medication. But after a while I started noticing limitations in mobility and tendency to inertia (see: I have a teenager at home and we do things together, hard to catch up with her, right?). As I was mulling how to fix my lack of enthusiasm, my company started a short FMS program (8 weeks) for free. How convenient! I signed up. Then I REALLY found out in what shape I was and it was depressing. So I mustered the courage of the brave and attacked the program like a mad man (voice of wisdom: be more cautious than I was, in my imagination I thought I was still 30 and injured my biceps’ tendons, but I’m recovering). At the end of the program the FMS didn’t show much progress in numbers, but I could feel a great progress occurring, including BMI loss. So since then I’ve been on a treadmill and weights training (20 min-20 min-20 min) program of my own making. My goal is to lose the fat, not to run a marathon, see? So metabolic obesity (or whatever you want to call it) happened to me, but it also led me to believe I was okay. So you have an idea of where I come from, I will tell you in college I was a proportional 29 waist (no strangling tight belts), and the decline has been majorly during the last 10 years due to the demands of work: long hours of work, a lot of travel, a lot of dinners and short hours of sleep. So don’t be tricked by the thought or hope that you are lucky if, like me, you get kudos from your physician even though you are obese. Obesity does not come free and it’s spiral which tightens and speeds up towards a point. I was still far from that point, but I saw the signs…
    Again, I don’t intend to be preachy or anything like that. It is a long way still to go and it WILL feel loooong at times, but hey! such is life. I don’t get stressed out either, I just took a week off the gym to enjoy with a great kid visiting from China and with my family. If figured walking like nuts through museums, zoos, playing at beach, going up lighthouses and the kind would still count and a day or two above a 500 calorie deficit (my goal is a deficit of between 500 and 1000 a day) is just o-kay, Jose.

    • Avatar chexwarrior says:

      BMI is by definition (Body Mass)/(Height^2) and fails to account for whether the weight is from fat or muscle. A pinch meter, sonogram probe, or water immersion tub measure body composition also known as body fat percentage. BMI is not usually expressed with units (it would be Kg/m^2 if it were shown) and typical values range from about 20 to 30. The numbers in your story are body fat percentage, which is a much better health indicator than BMI, as evidenced by the “obese athlete” problem when looking at BMI.

  8. My weight has been all over the place. In the mid 90’s, I went on the Karen Carpenter diet, lost 80 pounds in 3 months, felt like trash, had severe leg cramping most of the time, I was ghastly thin, and the moron at my gym, (yes, I was working out too), told me my BMI was something like 15? It made me lose all interest. I’ve always been over-weight, I come from the Fat-Family-Robinson. I gained all the weight back, and then some. Now? I started Weight Watchers in mid-May. I’ve lost 32 pounds to date, and am doing it slowly and healthy. My body structure is not to be a thin person. I have to accept that. But if I can get rid of my gut and shed another 50 pounds, (my goal), I’ll be ecstatic. Randy McDaniels, TLC.

  9. Avatar Jacqui Richards says:

    This article is great if you are a athlete. Most of America do not even exercise the recommended 150 minutes per week as per the surgeon general. Therefore, this article is a disservice to overweight and obese Americans who bare the burden of diabetes,hypertension, heart disease.cancer,strokes and inability to ambulate due to large joint disorders and many other problems. I do not care if we love ourselves obese but obesity costs money not because of the way you look but because of the major health issues attached. This country will be broke due to healthcare. Fat in America or any other country is not beautifully healthy.

  10. Avatar ron6788 says:

    “It’s not at all unusual for an Olympic athlete or marathoner with a lot
    of muscle mass to fall into the “overweight” or even “obese” category,
    which is why a lot of medical professionals call bs on using BMI as an
    accurate measure of health.”

    I disagree. It would be highly unusual to see an obese olympic athlete or marathoner. Also, doctors do use a person’s weight as an important measure of health.

    The reason one can be overweight and still outlive others may very well be because they take more medication.

    Certain professions encourage overweightedness, such as defensive football players or weighlifters. As strong as these men can be, they’re still obese and at higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

    But, don’t get me wrong. I think heavy people should be models, too. Afterall, nearly 70% of the adults in the US are overweight.

  11. Avatar C. Ghaith says:

    Hey, I agree with your point of view but also I want to share my another review about overweight. I agree that carrying heavy weight puts stress on joints but doing workout is not only enough if you are going to eat unhealthy food.

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