I haven’t been skinny in about twenty years. In fact, when I was a kid I was just plain fat. There’s no two ways about it.
These days I would consider myself to be in pretty good shape. However, by the most popular conventional standards I am officially overweight, along with 2.3 billion other adults in the world. And as you will already know if you pay any attention to the media, excess fat on your body is supposedly a ticking time bomb.
Well, screw that. In this post I want to explain why I’m perfectly happy with my weight. I want to explore the absurdity and contradiction behind conventional ways of determining whether someone is “overweight” and reveal why being overweight may have no negative impact on your health and can enable a sustainable and fulfilling way of life.
What is “Overweight”?
Overweight can mean many things to many people. It is a highly subjective term.
The dictionary defines it as follows:
Above a weight considered normal or desirable
That in itself highlights just how ambiguous the word is. Wikipedia is a little more descriptive:
Overweight is generally defined as having more body fat than is optimally healthy … A healthy body requires a minimum amount of fat for the proper functioning of the hormonal, reproductive, and immune systems, as thermal insulation, as shock absorption for sensitive areas, and as energy for future use. But the accumulation of too much storage fat can impair movement and flexibility, and can alter the appearance of the body.
That makes more sense. As human beings we need fat to survive, but “excess” fat (however you might choose to define it) isn’t much use to us biologically speaking – especially because food is so plentiful. In the past, carrying excess fat could be the difference between life and death in lean times, but that is no longer the case.
So we have a relatively good grasp on the meaning of the word, but how does you go about determining whether someone is overweight? The most popular conventional method is a calculation of your Body Mass Index (BMI). This 19th century calculation is simply your body mass divided by the square of your height. You can use this online tool to calculate your BMI right now.
The BMI normal/overweight cut-off figure in the USA was 27.8 up until it was changed in 1998. So up to that point I would have been determined as “healthy,” but now I’m overweight. Meanwhile, in Japan I would be defined as “obese”.
These variations help to highlight just how absurd BMI is. I’ve not even mentioned the fact that it doesn’t take several key factors (such as bone and muscle density) into account.
An article on Sporting Charts revealed how the average BMI for an NFL player is 31.35. Obese. And it’s not just the linemen. The average BMI of a wide receiver is 26.61 – overweight. Just in case you’re forgetting what an NFL wide receiver looks like, here’s a photo:
In my opinion, you should take your BMI with a hefty pinch of salt. Whether it’s 24 or 26 should not heavily influence your lifestyle choices, because we are dealing with nothing more than numbers (and woefully inaccurate ones at that). You are not a number.
Is Being Overweight Dangerous?
Let’s go along with BMI for now, given that it is the only widely used measure available for statistical research.
It is popularly argued that being obese (i.e. having a BMI of 30 or more) is bad for your health, and can lead to all sorts of complications down the line. If we strip away the outliers from that category (i.e. those whose body composition renders their BMI all but obsolete), I would not be one to claim that obesity is a good thing in terms of health. But what about those of us who are “overweight”?
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine set out to determine the relation between being overweight and the risk of death. Their findings were shocking: the risk of death for overweight but otherwise healthy participants in the study increased 20–40% over those of a healthy weight. While this correlation does not prove causation and the study was limited in a number of ways, its findings are certainly noteworthy.
Meanwhile, a systematic review (i.e. one that collates and analyzes multiple studies) in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that being overweight was associated with “significantly lower all-cause mortality.” Or to put it another way, it could actually benefit you to be overweight.
The arguments for the health benefits of being overweight are intriguing. An article on Medical Daily argues that excess fat can provide much-needed energy during sickness and pointed out that someone with a low percentage of body fat is more than four times as likely to die from heart disease as an overweight patient with the same diagnosis. Even more interestingly, the article argues that overweight patients are likely to receive more carefully considered treatment from medical professionals due to a heightened awareness of their mortality (you know, because of the love handles).
The flip side to this argument is that while being overweight may lead to some health benefits, they are outweighed by the increased cause of various medical conditions.
My conclusion is simple: not only are findings inconclusive, they are largely based upon a system of measurement that is woefully inadequate. In my opinion, that is exactly why the findings are so inconclusive – because BMI is (to an extent) arbitrary. You can argue until you’re blue in the face that being overweight leads to an increased risk of mortality, but that does not mean that an individual with a BMI of 25.1 is more likely to die than another individual with a BMI of 24.9. Statistical anomalies do not define your health.
With studies arguing both for and against the health implications of being overweight, I say that we should do away with the whole concept of being “overweight” altogether. Why not focus on something far more practical and life-affirming, like simply “being in shape”?
I have a very practical approach to my own personal health: I want to feel healthy.
I want to be in good health most of the time. If I’m getting ill a lot then I know I’m probably not treating my body right. I want to feel mobile. I want to be able to climb a flight of stairs without losing my breath. I want to sprint after a ball without having to take a five-minute rest afterwards.
If I can do these things, I know in myself that I am in pretty good shape. It’s a simple equation:
Active = Healthy
If you’re overweight in terms of BMI, but pass all of the above tests, you’re fine by my measure. Far better that you have some extra fat and be in reasonable shape than be skinny and unhealthy! A lack of excess fat does not necessarily mean that you are healthy (far from it – I know skinny people who do practically no exercise).
Being in good shape all comes down to one simple rule: you must do exercise. Now don’t run away just yet – I know that many of us associate that word with gyms and treadmills. But exercise doesn’t have to be soul-destroying. In fact, I believe it to be far better for us in terms of health to exercise “naturally” rather than in an air-conditioned room to prescribed schedules.
When I say exercise, I mean fun exercise. The kind of exercise that you enjoy so much, it doesn’t actually feel like exercise. Stuff like running up and down sand dunes. Playing sports. Walking your dog. Hiking with your partner and/or friends. Playing on your Nintendo Wii. Doing absolutely anything that involves movement. There are no rules and there are no prescribed workouts.
Don’t worry about hitting quotas. Just move.
The 80/20 Approach to Health and Fitness
Let’s take the “I want to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club” issue out the equation for a moment and talk about health and fitness in general.
I have no doubt that being at a peak level of fitness is absolutely awesome. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced (the closest I got was running 35 miles per week when training for a marathon), but I bet it feels fantastic to feel totally in control of your body. However, attaining that kind of physique is not necessary to live a long and active life. Furthermore, attaining that kind of physique requires an enormous amount of sacrifice.
In reality, applying the rules of the 80/20 principle enables you to be fit and healthy with just a fraction of the effort that Brad Pitt put into his Fight Club physique.
If you haven’t heard of the 80/20 principle, it’s quite simple: in many situations, 80% of the output is a result of just 20% of the input.
The principle was originally observed by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in 1906 when he discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He subsequently discovered that this pattern repeated in an astonishing variety of circumstances (for example, he observed that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas). While the split may not always be 80/20 (it could be 90/30 or 60/5, and so on) there is almost always an imbalance that favors output.
The applications of the 80/20 principles are wide-ranging, but it always comes down to the same simple point: you can achieve the majority of the desired outcome with just a fraction of the effort. In the case of health and fitness, I can achieve a body that is 80% of the way towards Brad Pitt’s Fight Club physique with just 20% of the effort (theoretically speaking). Or to put it another way, I can be 80% as healthy as my completely health-obsessed next door neighbour with only 20% of the dedication and sacrifice.
You can exercise moderately (and only by doing those things you enjoy) and be ready to take on the world. Meanwhile, getting those six-pack abs will require the remaining 80% of the effort you have yet to expend.
Is it really worth it? Sounds exhausting to me.
Being active and healthy is one of life’s simple pleasures, and one that overweight people can enjoy. As long as you eat relatively healthily and stay moderately active, you’re healthy enough in my book.
Carrying a few extra pounds doesn’t concern me in the slightest if you’re generally fit and healthy. It’s not about how much fat you’re carrying – it’s about how you live life.
As for obesity and where that line is drawn, I’ll say this: if you’ve got to the point where you’re concerned that you’re obese (as opposed to just overweight), you almost certainly need to make some changes in terms of diet and exercise.
Quantifiable measures of health and fitness are notoriously inaccurate. In reality, if you’re a responsible adult then you probably already know if you’re unhealthy. You don’t need an online calculator to tell you. And by extension, it’s up to you to be responsible for it.
Image credits: Keith Allison, Alex Murrell