Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Fallacy of Fat AND Fit

I recently read an article in Runner’s World about Mirna Valerio, a just-barely-not-morbidly-obese runner. By the way, that description of Valerio is not meant to be hurtful.  It is, in fact, accurate (she is 5’7’’ and 250 lbs giving her a BMI of 39 when 40 is morbidly obese) and uses the exact terms she uses in the article about herself. The crux of the article, which you are welcome to read and form your own opinion, is whether one can be both fat and fit at the same time. However, if you are looking for an answer to the question, save yourself some time. The article doesn’t really say one way or the other even though it definitely leans in the direction of “Sure you can!”(As for what is "fit" exactly, it is a vague term that has various levels of shades of grey. Some definitions are touched on here, and I welcome you to read them at your leisure. If you choose not, let's all agree that we have a relatively solid idea what is fit and what is not so we can move on with the rest of this article.)

Before we get any further, let me lay down some ground rules for this article. I do not know Ms. Valerio. Any conclusions I draw from here on out will use her story as a generalized example, but are not meant to mean her case exactly. She seems, by all accounts, to be a lovely person whom I would enjoy getting to know. I am, at least, greatly interested in many of the things she said and learning more about them. So, while I will draw from her story, nothing I say is a personal attack on her whatsoever. There. Is that enough of a caveat? (I doubt it. But let’s move forward.)

The article says:

“A highly publicized 2008 study, for instance, found that compared with normal-weight active women, the risk of developing heart disease was 54 percent higher in overweight active women and 87 percent higher in obese active women. In effect, the study seemed to suggest, you really can't live healthfully with obesity; being fit and being fat truly were mutually exclusive. (emphasis mine)”

Then it says:

“Since then, however, a number of studies have been published reaching a somewhat different conclusion. “The scientific evidence has become quite powerful to suggest that a healthful lifestyle dramatically mitigates the risks associated with mild levels of obesity,” says Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., author of The Diet Fix and a professor at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Medicine in Canada.”

I get chastised by people who think I parse words too carefully. They throw “Well, of course, you think that. You went to law school!” as if being educated and knowing that words have an assigned meaning so we as a society can understand them is a bad thing. But let’s take a look at these two paragraphs. To begin, I think you would be hard pressed to find any recent study that would refute to any discernible degree the heart disease percentages stated above. Perhaps they have changed, however. If so, we need only to move onto the statement by Dr. Freedhoff to realize how little water it holds as a counterargument. If you break that down, you would have a difficult time finding a sentence with more qualifiers in it that really still doesn’t say much at all. Bear with me.

1.    The evidence doesn’t say or point to anything but it suggests.
2.    A healthful lifestyle? Could that be more vague? I am guessing nowhere in “healthful lifestyle” is morbidly obese considered one of the categories.
3.    “Mild levels of obesity.” Not severely obese. Not morbidly obese. Not super obese. (How sad is it we have a standard above “morbid” obesity?)

In other words, we have a suggestion that if you vaguely live well, it will decrease some of the risks connected to being overweight. This is the smoking gun statement to combat the studies which show obesity leads to massive increases in developing heart disease? That’s pretty darn flimsy.

The study of exercise and weight-loss and physical performance is extremely important to me. I am invested in learning as much as I can for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it affects not only my livelihood but my own personal racing goals. I have come out, time and time again, to state that being fit is an extremely hard thing (even if we all agree on what “fit” actually is.) I struggle with it all the time. While I have made my name doing things that few have or could do, I still struggle with weight. I am 6’1’’ 185 lbs for the most part. One of my proudest personal achievements is that my marathon PR, my placements in National Championship races, and virtually all of my racing has been done around that weight. It matters not if that weight is all muscle (it is so not even close to all muscle) or not, it is still 185 lbs. It is a lot of body to move through space. Simple physics says it is harder for me to do what I have done than a person who weighs, say 155 pounds. In fact, I would also love to know how many 185lb men have run a sub 2:50 marathon. Not as a pissing contest, but so I could meet them and learn their secrets. Learn what they eat. How they train. See how many of us there actually are out there. But I digress.

My point is, I work very hard to maintain my weight. I also know that running alone is not the best way to keep it down. Valerio says something I have heard from many people: “No matter how much I run and work out, my weight never goes below around 240 pounds.” Again, I use her quote as one used by many and am not attacking Valerio.  But if you are running and working out so much that “no matter” what you do you can’t lose weight (in and of itself hard to believe) then you must look at your diet. Through a completely scientific method I just created, my feeling is that 65% of weight loss and good health comes from diet. Exercise comprises the other 35%. And I think it easily could be less. Basically, we think our furnace can burn off more than it does and we underestimate how much fuel we are placing in it in the first place.

Reading the article, I very much liked the approach of Valerio’s doctor which was blunt and to the point. (Want to not be dead when your son turns 10? Lose weight.) Good luck finding anyone of note in the running world to dare say anything remotely disparaging about people that are overweight or not in perfect shape. They know where their bread is buttered (and food fried.) But I have no problem being as blunt as that doctor, even if it makes me have a few less twitter followers. The reason I feel I have every right to do so is because I do not have six-pack abs. I am not model-thin. I race long, hard, and often. Note I said “race” and not just run.  Yet, I continue to have to watch my diet. I was not blessed with a fast metabolism. I was rail-thin when I was child and through parts of high school but that was a long time ago. In spite of the success I have achieved in my exercise and athletics, it did not come from the body of one who was traditionally built to run relatively fast. As such, I have earned more than enough cache to know what it is like to be a decent runner AND have to work hard as heck to not have a double chin. So if someone wants to dismiss my views as those coming from a guy who doesn’t know what the middle of the pack feels like, well that just shows their ignorance.

At one point in the article it says “Valerio runs at about an 11-to 13-minute-mile pace, roughly the same rate at which Terry Fox ran across Canada on one good leg and one prosthetic leg in 1980.” It was here that I knew no reasonable answer was going to come from this entire reading. If you want to compare Valerio’s pace for her roughly 30 miles a week to what a cancer-stricken, one-legged man did in a single day, FOR MONTHS ON END, I now know this is article is more about feel-good than it is about facts. Mentioning Valerio’s excellent singing voice, dealings with deep-seated racism in the South, and a plethora of other things make for an excellent story. They also completely obfuscate the facts or at least the reason for the article. The questions get muddled and no answer comes forward. So let me answer the question for you.

Can you be fat and fit? No, not really.

Will exercising make you a fitter version of the exact same person who is not exercising? Absolutely. Is Valerio (or anyone in this scenario) better off by hitting the roads and trails and putting miles under their feet? Of this there is no doubt. But let us not sugarcoat the facts that we all know. I am not even remotely saying you have to be ready for the cover of Men’s Health magazine to be fit. You needn’t be ready to take on American Ninja Warrior Climbing Mountain Skills Competition to get through your daily life. But just because you can’t be that pinnacle of fitness doesn’t mean you should adopt the idea that obesity won't affect your health.

I am in no way saying that those with weight problems need to hate themselves. But I am saying that pretending that weight problems are not an actual problem is a bad thing. (I wrote extensively about this in the Cost of Obesity.) It is perfectly fine to say that being fat is not healthy. It is perfectly fine to be on the road to better health and still not be as fit as you would like. Rarely are we where we want to be health-wise for a long period of time. There are ebbs and flows. There are changes in lifestyles and workloads and injuries and setbacks which keep us from being where we would ideally like to be for very long. It is OK to embrace that we have work to do. I know I do. I know I have to eat a little healthier than I did a decade ago. I know my workouts have to be a bit more structured. I know that even doing all of that, I remain right around 185lbs. But I also know that disparaging those who are thinner or are healthier (fit-shaming) doesn’t automatically by default make my situation any better.

In summation, I think it is wonderful Valerio is out there moving along.  I applaud anyone who is attempting to better themselves. But we don’t need to sugarcoat the results or the facts. Runners like hard numbers. We are tough people willing to run dozes of miles for non-precious medals. I know we live in an era of instant-gratification and thunderous applause for the even the most minute accomplishment but science is science. While every way we know to study fitness has some flaws it is very hard to make a reasonable argument that being fat is just as healthy as not. So rather than make excuses or distort the truth, simply give a pat on the back to the person who is bettering themselves.

We all need encouragement far more than we need misinformation or to be praised where praise needn't be. Just like "You're almost there!" at mile 20 of a marathon, we may want to believe it but we know it isn't true.

N.B.  If, in spite of all the caveats, you are still somehow offended by my statement of facts, know that the subject of this article herself read it and wasn't bothered. 


Unknown said...

I knew that pace quote was going to come up. Slowies are not automatically to be discounted. I'm 5'6" 140 lb female (nowhere near obese BMI category) and I do 11-13 min mi sometimes when I'm tired or conditions are bad. Does that mean I'm not fit? I usually do 2 marathons a year, too many halfs to keep track of, and ride my bike around 35-50 miles a week. The training and work I put in isn't just a feel-good.

Dane said...

I don't know what you are asking, Stacy. No one discounted "slowies". I made no reference to her speed in a detrimental way. But if you ARE going to mention it, and then try to compare it to something which is infinitely more difficult (e.g., Terry Fox's run) it opens itself up to ridicule and for good reason.

Eric said...

Phil Maffetone differentiates between fit and healthy. He argues that you CAN be fat and fit, pointing to people who finish races with "good" times despite having a higher-than-average body fat content (I am not talking about obese and higher). So yes, those people are fit because they can run fast. Could they run faster if they were not fat? Of course.

But the point is, people who are fit are not necessarily healthy. Fit people should strive to also be healthy, and healthy people should strive to also be fit.

Unknown said...

I am 6'2 and weigh between 200-205 pounds, I have run 9 marathons. One sub three which I ran last November, two others below 3:10 including 2015 Boston. I weighed 280 pounds at the beginning of 2011 and lost 80 pounds over the next 10 months. I have maintained this weight for the past 4 years. Am I fat by your definition still? Am I not fit?