As a dietitian and nutritionist, I’m aware that my body is a walking billboard for my services. While the number I see on the scale shouldn’t determine whether I’m a qualified nutrition professional, I can’t escape the feeling that my outward appearance may have an effect on potential clients.
But before I sound too distressed, I’ll admit that I’ve used looks to judge the competency of others. After all, I wouldn’t trust my mane in the hands of a hair stylist who possessed an outdated or frizzy hairstyle for herself. I work alongside several fitness professionals who face the same scrutiny as well—maintain a weight that appears to be “healthy,” or face doubts from clients concerning your physical fitness and your ability to be an exercise instructor.
This issue has come up frequently among my colleagues as one of the hottest, albeit most controversial, conversation topics. Can someone be fit while also being “fat”? (For the purposes of this article, we’ll define “fat” as being overweight or obese.)
After considerable research, discussions with some of the leaders in the field, and from personal experience, I don’t think we know for sure. Let’s review the evidence on each side of the argument spectrum so you can come to your own conclusion.
According to many, therein lies one of the major barriers to answering this question. While there are many aspects of physical fitness—such as cardiorespiratory endurance, muscle strength, muscle endurance, flexibility and body composition—possessing high levels of fitness in one area doesn’t guarantee you’ll be fit in another. Take a collegiate or professional football player: While he may possess explosive muscular strength and prolonged muscular endurance, he may have difficulty touching his toes. Additionally, many elite football players possess body fat percentages or body mass indexes well above the range that would classify them as overweight or obese.
Most research studies don’t look at all of the areas of physical fitness. Instead, they typically focus on body composition. This may be done due to the ease, or difficulty, of obtaining data. To calculate a body mass index, for example, a researcher will only need the height and weight of the subject, whereas obtaining a VO2 max to test cardiorespiratory fitness of a subject involves a treadmill, a trained technician, and several minutes of intense running.
For this debate, we’ll focus mostly on body composition, because most studies used this as their fitness measurement. Here’s what I found:
If you had to guess what a leading expert on physical fitness looks like, what would you envision? Whatever you guessed, it probably wasn’t the physical makeup of Dr. Steven Blair, a renowned public health expert and exercise science professor. At a reported 5-foot 4-inches and 180 pounds, Blair may not look like an athlete, yet he is an avid marathoner who runs around 30 miles per week. Interestingly enough, Blair’s research coincides with his figure and abilities, and shows that those who are unfit and of normal weight die sooner than those who are obese but possess significant physical fitness. (In other words, the excess weight doesn’t matter if you are active and meeting the current national physical activity recommendations—which equals approximately 150 minutes of exercise or activity per week.)
Blair isn’t alone in his findings. A study published in the European Heart Journal showed that those who are obese but metabolically healthy—meaning that their blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, and other indicators fall within a healthy range—have no greater risk of dying from heart disease or cancer than those who are of normal weight.
As is often true in the research realm, there are also studies that show the opposite. One published in the Journal of The American College of Cardiology showed that while people can be obese and fit for a short time, continued obesity will eventually bring deleterious, or damaging, health effects such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and early mortality. Carrying excess body weight can also be bad for the body’s joints, the study found, even if one is healthy and free of disease.
Regardless of your scale weight, body fat percentage, or the number of pounds you can bench press, the message is still the same: Exercise does a body good, no matter what yours happens to look like. As to whether weight matters, the science isn’t certain, and we have years of research ahead of us before we’ll find out for sure. What I can say with certainty is that being overweight or obese doesn’t mean you’re not fit or competent in the areas of health, nutrition and fitness. The old adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover” comes to mind as I recall some of the exercise and nutrition professionals I’ve worked with who were highly skilled even if their BMI was above the range generally considered to be healthy.
While we’re not exempt from those who critique our figure, we can personally try to refrain from judging others based on their outward appearance…even our hair stylists.