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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Chow Line: Keep physically fit at any weight (9/21/12)

September 21, 2012

I’ve seen conflicting information about whether or not being obese is actually harmful to your health. Can you clarify?

You’re not crazy. Depending on how studies are designed, how large they are, and a number of other factors, results can seem to conflict with each other. And, since more than one-third of U.S. adults are currently classified as obese, this type of research generally gets (and deserves) a lot of attention.

Some research suggests that obesity increases the risk of disease and death no matter what. But other studies indicate that being obese isn’t necessarily predictive of negative health outcomes. One recently published study is a good example.

The study, conducted at the University of South Carolina, suggests that nearly half of the obese people who participated in the study were just as healthy, metabolically speaking, as their normal-weight counterparts, and they had no increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer or death.

The study examined 43,265 participants in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study between 1979 and 2003. Participants completed detailed questionnaires on their medical and lifestyle history, and they had a physical exam that included measurements of their height, weight and percentage of body fat, as well as metabolic measurements including blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and fasting glucose levels. They also took a treadmill test that measured their level of cardio-respiratory fitness. The participants were followed until they died or until the end of 2003.

The researchers found that 46 percent of the obese participants were metabolically healthy, and they also had a better fitness level than obese participants who had high blood pressure, high triglycerides or other metabolic measurements of concern. It appears that being fit — at least as measured on a standard treadmill test — is a better measure of health risks than what the scale says.

The take-home message? No matter what your weight, do what you can to stay or become physically fit. Take a brisk walk first thing in the morning or every evening after supper. Take an aerobics class, start swimming, or join a local gym. Make it a habit to take the stairs, even if you have to climb three or four flights, instead of taking the elevator.

Of course, if you’re not used to much physical activity, first check in with your doctor or health professional to make sure there are no underlying health conditions that you need to be aware of. But once you start, keep being active — no matter what the scale says.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carolyn Gunther, community nutrition education specialist for Ohio State University Extension and assistant professor of human nutrition in the College of Education and Human Ecology.

Martha Filipic
Carolyn Gunther