A few weeks ago, while perusing one of the many fitness blogs I read on a perhaps overly-compulsive basis, I came across an article titled “New Study Says You Can Be Fat And Healthy; We’re Not Totally Buying It”.
This is the type of headline that always catches my attention, in part because I usually fall under the category of “fit and fat.” Technically speaking—in the random situation in my day-to-day life someone references my physique, they usually say something along the lines of, “Clearly you work out,” although I do get an occasional, “You’re not what I’d expect a personal trainer to be like.” If you’re looking at me by the numbers that represent me, though—my weight, my height, my body fat percentage, resting heart rate, cholesterol levels, running speed and endurance, maximum weight I can squat, etc—I’ve always been overweight (ranging from five to twenty-five pounds) but have stellar health markers otherwise. Plus I’ve got some street cred in the gym (except, you know, with anything requiring coordination, like Zumba. Then I like to think of myself as a positive reminder to other class-goers to not be self-conscious, because even fitness professionals can suck at exercise sometimes.)
So, in short, I’m interested in blog posts like the one on Blisstree because if you consider me as a human statistic and not as a flesh-and-blood individual, I’m fit and fat. And, like most people reading health and fitness articles, I’m trying to figure out if my lifestyle is sending me on the fast-track to the cardiac unit or if I feel like I’m doing okay, I can trust that feeling. The article on Blisstree argues that this new study will just give people a false sense of security and leaves out too much information regarding obese individuals and overall diet.
To be honest, I don’t want to go into a deep analysis of the study here. An overview: one of the recent issues of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association published a study of 13,000 men that tracked the men’s cardiovascular fitness and their BMI over a six year period. Everybody studied was normal weight to overweight (in other words, nobody obese). When tracking the risk factors for cardiac-related and other types of death, the study found that increasing overall fitness was actually more important than losing weight or body fat; in fact, the study participants who only lost weight or body fat but did not improve fitness didn’t even see an improvement in their overall likelihood of dying of various health issues. The general conclusion was that a person who’s a little overweight and struggling to lose the pounds should probably focus more of his efforts on improving his fitness instead. (You can find a release on the story here and the abstract/original study here.)
The findings were interesting, but it’s difficult (if not impossible) to make a debate of this-study-versus-that-study. Research exists that states that exercise isn’t enough. One of the biggest problems with how we study health is that we don’t necessarily know which variables throw the results of two similar studies in opposite directions. It would probably be easier for the average reader to go into a river and catch a fish bare-handed, ninja-style, than to pick out the most accurate reports of research from the media.
The frustrating part of the Blisstree article for me, then, lies in the time spent erroneously attacking the particulars of the study: the author argues that the study doesn’t take into account obese individuals, but the study authors say that. The study is not of obesity, it is of the middle ground—of figuring out how to draw the line between “healthy” and “unhealthy” in a sandy beach with regular tides that obscure the markings.
The blogger’s other argument is equally frustrating: “We also know that food consumption is a major factor in their overall health, and the participants’ diets were not taken into account here. Because even if we have good vitals and good physical fitness, a poor diet will likely catch up with us.” Valid point, although the study is stating that vitals improved with increased physical fitness (although, yes, we don’t know how much, or if it was from unhealthy to borderline unhealthy). Are we supposed to assume that vital signs are going to improve until they suddenly plummet because those five extra pounds smothered the person’s heart in a midnight coup?
Essentially, she spends too much time trying to debunk the parts of the research that don’t really need to be debunked– at least, if you consider the entirety of what the study authors say.
The post seems to me a good example of the major problem of our discussion of health and fitness today: We spend an abundance of time discussing particulars that don’t match up, which is wrong and which is right, and not enough time discussing why those particulars don’t match up. Our research practices seem to be proof of the adage, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Our research is consistently contradictory. Rather than pointing fingers and saying, “No, that person over there with the 26.5 BMI can’t be healthy because I’ve got research saying the opposite,” we need to be considering what’s going wrong with our standards of measurement. Clearly, we’re missing something in our calculations of health. The difficulty of using numbers to study people is that the math often doesn’t add up.