Body of evidence stresses fitness, not just fatness

May 31, 1994|By Rita Rubin | Rita Rubin,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Imagine your doctor telling you that carrying around those 20 extra pounds may actually be better than trying to lose them. In your dreams, you say? After perusing some recent research results, you might conclude that you can stop dreaming and dip into a pint of rocky road. Or two.

Several studies tantalizingly suggest that people who put on pounds over the years live longest while those who lose weight die sooner. Meanwhile, nationwide surveys reveal that cholesterol and blood pressure levels and heart disease rates are falling even as Americans' average weights are rising -- perhaps reflecting a tendency to cut fat but not calories.

People such as President Clinton, who readily acknowledges that he looks fleshy in jogging shorts, add weight to the controversial notion that someone could be somewhat hefty and still be healthy. At his last checkup in January, the president weighed in at 210 pounds, the maximum desirable weight for his 6-foot-2 frame, according to the latest guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (And these guidelines are more generous than earlier versions, thanks to the research arguing for weight gain with age.) Although President Clinton appears a bit chunky -- by older charts he's about 15 pounds overweight -- his doctors said his blood pressure and cholesterol levels are OK and he shows no signs of heart disease.

No one goes so far as to suggest that excess fat is purely a cosmetic problem; obesity has been implicated in heart disease as well as certain cancers, stroke and diabetes. Yet a growing chorus of experts maintains that most people put way too much emphasis on weight. "I feel very strongly that there really isn't much mystery about the public health message we should be sending out: If you're concerned about your health, forget about your weight," says Elsie Pamuk, a health statistician for the National Center for Health Statistics.

Instead, better to concentrate on getting up and moving around -- President Clinton jogs 3.5 miles in a half-hour, three or four times a week -- and substituting fruits, vegetables and whole grains for fatty fare. Your blood pressure, cholesterol and insulin readings should improve and, as a bonus, you'll probably drop a few pounds.

Exercise counts

In a study of healthy overweight men above age 65, Robert Schwartz, an associate professor of medicine and gerontology at the University of Washington, found that trimming a mere 5 pounds by walking, jogging or biking raised high-density lipoprotein (HDL, dubbed "good" cholesterol because it keeps the arteries from clogging) even more than did losing 20 pounds by cutting calories alone. Zeroing in on weight is a likely prelude to failure anyway. Study after study shows that within five years after reaching their goal, most people regain all the pounds they had lost by dieting.

"Thin isn't fit, and overweight isn't out of shape," says Rochester, N.Y., aerobics instructor and personal trainer Lori A. Michaels, who dons size 14 street clothes when class is over. Though she's trimmer now than when she was a 185-pound cheerleader in high school, Ms. Michaels still weighs near the top of the USDA-recommended range (134-172 pounds) for her 5-foot-7 height.

And the upper end usually applies to men. Five hours of aerobic activity a week has helped normalize her previously elevated blood sugar and cholesterol levels and maintain her satisfactory blood pressure, Ms. Michaels says. "When I walk into a class, people go, 'Hi, who's teaching?' " she says. That's all the prompting she needs to leave the questioners panting.

If just the thought of an aerobics class leaves you out of breath, take heart. Recent research shows that every extra block walked or flight of stairs climbed counts. "One big step I think we've made in the last few years is realizing that a little bit is better than nothing; a little bit more is better than a little bit," says Harold Kohl, an epidemiologist at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. Mr. Kohl co-authored a landmark 1989 study that found that simply walking briskly for a half-hour ,, to an hour each day can reduce your risk of dying from heart disease or cancer almost as much as training for a marathon would.

Pat Lyons will attest to the benefits of moderate exercise in previously sedentary overweight people. A 5-foot-8 nurse who doesn't hesitate to say she weighs 240 pounds, Ms. Lyons co-wrote "Great Shape" (Bull Publishing, $14.95), a book about exercise for large women, and teaches a weekly class with the same goals for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, where she's a health education consultant.

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