Written by Dr Aashish Contractor
I was sitting in the courtyard of a Sobo building, for morning chai with my group of runner friends, when the topic veered around to body weight and fitness. The cue for that was the plate of Bourbon biscuits, being passed around, by our generous host and running buddy, Sumeet Mehra. My friend Harsh, declined it, saying that he was cutting back on sugar to get back to his “fighting-fit weight.” Dr Harsh Vyas is a leading paediatric dentist in the country and a strong marathon runner, but has struggled with his weight, in spite of a high volume of exercise. This is a common complaint I have heard over the years, especially from those who exercise regularly. This also leads to the question of can you be fat and fit?
Normal body fat vs obesity
Let us look at what science tells us, and do bear in mind, that the term “fat” is not used derogatorily, but to simply denote those individuals whose body mass index is over the normal range.
What do studies show? A seminal study, done at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, measured the body fat percentage and fitness level on a treadmill test in 22,000 men and followed them for a period of eight years. It looked at the association between fitness, body composition (fat percentage) and mortality from all causes. As expected, they found that those who were fit and had normal body fat, had the best outcomes. But they also found that unfit lean men had double the risk of all-cause mortality as compared to fit, lean men. And what was most surprising was the finding that those who had a higher body fat percentage, but were fit had a lower risk of death than those who were unfit, with normal body fat.
In other words, in this particular study, it was better to be “fat and fit, than thin and unfit.” There have been other large studies, which have also shown that fitness offers strong protection, even if you are a few kilos overweight.
Stubborn fat? Watch what you are eating after exercise
The above data should not be interpreted as a licence to binge and not worry about weight, as long as you are fit. On the contrary, you need to make every effort to get your weight with the normal range, since the detrimental effects of obesity are well documented. Being fit and normal weight is clearly the best bracket to belong to, but the data should give comfort to those who are exercising regularly, but it’s not reflected in their weight.
I routinely caution my patients on not allowing their weighing scale, to be their “judge and jury.” Exercise will give you tremendous physical, metabolic and mental health benefits, but it’s not a great calorie burner, or at least it’s not as great as we would all like it to be.
As a rule of thumb, one mile of walking burns 100 calories for an average weight person. A few years ago, some friends of mine took up walking in order to lose weight. They would walk a round of the Race Course in Mumbai, which is about 1.5 miles. They would then go across to the Willingdon Club and have a large glass of fresh orange juice, to reward themselves.
They were perplexed when, after a month of exercise, they did not see their weight dropping. Their walk probably burned off 150 calories, after which they treated themselves to a tall glass of orange juice, which was made up of 3-4 oranges, with added sugar, and was about 200 calories. The net effect of their ‘healthy’ evening out was a 50- calorie weight gain! Before this puts you off exercise, I must hasten to add that the benefits of exercise should not be viewed through the narrow prism of weight loss alone.
What’s the take-home message?
If you are exercising regularly and being careful about what you eat, do not get overly disappointed if you are a few kilos overweight. Consult with your doctor, and get your metabolic parameters such as blood sugar and cholesterol checked regularly and if they are within normal range, rest assured that you will reap the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.