Most people believe that being overweight, or obese in terms of body mass index, is fine as long as there is proper exercise and dieting to counter it.

This notion, called the "fat but fit is OK" myth, implies that for overweight and obese people, the risk of early death can be compensated by religiously engaging in fitness activities.

However, a new study in Sweden suggests that the concept may be incorrect. Somehow, obese people who manage to exercise regularly are possibly more likely to die prematurely than slim people who are not fit.

The Link Between Fitness and Premature Death

Led by Umea University Professor Peter Nordström, academics funded by the Swedish Research Council followed the health of 1,317,713 conscripts in order to find a link between aerobic fitness and death, as well as how obesity affected this association.

The recruits signed up for the armed forces when they were 18 years old. Nordström and his team examined their records, and followed them closely up until adulthood for an average of 29 years.

The aerobic fitness of these military recruits was tested beforehand. The men cycled using an exercise bike until they were all completely fatigued and had to stop. They also had their weight measured, allowing the researchers to calculate their BMI.

Nordström and his colleagues then searched the records to see who among the participants had since died from ailments such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

After much analysis, the team found that participants in the highest fifth of aerobic fitness had:

1. 48 percent lower chance of premature death compared with the participants in the lowest fifth;

2. 80 percent lower risk for alcohol or drug-related death;

3. 59 percent lower chance of taking their own life;

4. And 45 percent lower chance of cardiovascular disease-related death.

There was also no difference between men who were fit and men who were inactive: the former were far less likely to die prematurely than the latter.

The protective effects of physical fitness, however, were cancelled out when the participants were overweight or obese.

Nordström explained that men of normal weight who were unfit had 30 percent lower chances of premature death than obese men who were fit.

"These results suggest low BMI ... early in life is more important than high physical fitness, with regard to reducing the risk of early death," said Nordström.

What Caused The Link Between Death and Fitness?

One of the team's significant findings in this new study is the fact that there is a strong link between low aerobic fitness and deaths related to trauma. Nordström said they have yet to find the cause for this.

"We could only speculate, but genetic factors could have influenced these associations given that aerobic fitness is under strong genetic control," he said.

Obesity Is A Grave Threat

Data revealed that around two-thirds of people in the United Kingdom are obese or overweight. As Tech Times reported earlier this month, obesity in the country has become a threat as grave as natural disasters and terrorism. Obesity threatens to break the country's productivity and overpower the National Health Service.

"Action is required across all of society to prevent obesity and its associated problems for shortening women's lives and affecting their quality of life," said Professor Dame Sally Davies.

Davies added that women in particular should slim down to lower the risks of becoming obese during pregnancy as rising obesity rates are negatively affecting the health of future generations.

Do the Findings of the New Study Apply to Women?

Given that women should take care of their health to prevent obesity, how do obesity and physical fitness activities affect women's overall quality of life?

This is where the new study draws its limitations. The Swedish team only managed to evaluate the health of men and their relative early deaths.

The question as to whether gender affects the risks for premature death in obese or overweight individuals has yet to be taken into account.

Meanwhile, Nordström and his team's findings are featured in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Photo : Robert Anthony Provost | Flickr

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