Your physical fitness is more important than your weight in protecting your health, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of South Carolina and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Researchers followed 2,600 people over the age of 59 for 12 years, monitoring their physical fitness, obesity and mortality. Participants were ranked for fitness based on how long they could walk on a treadmill as the incline increased. Measures of obesity taken included body mass index, waist circumference and body fat percentage.
Participants were divided into fifths based on how well they scored on the treadmill test. Those in the lowest fifth were four times more likely to die during the study period as those in the top fifth.
“Being fit provides protection against mortality in these men and women 60 and older, whether they’re normal weight, overweight or obese,” said researcher Stephen Blair.
Even a small difference in fitness translated into a large difference in mortality — even when compared only with the next highest group, those in the lowest fitness group were still twice as likely to die. Blair said this showed that overweight people should not be discouraged from exercising, even if they are out of shape and can only manage a little at first.
“If you’re overweight or obese and you’re sedentary and unfit and you start taking three 10-minute walks a day and you do that at least five days a week, you’re not going to lose an enormous amount of weight,” Blair said. “You’re going to still be heavy. But you’re going to be much healthier if you do that.”
Blair noted that it is still important to maintain a healthy weight and eat a good diet, particularly one high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“But what happens all too often is we focus nearly exclusively on obesity and forget the activity and fitness part.”