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Should we concentrate on ensuring that our bodies are in tip top physical condition or aim to be as thin and shapely as possible? Is physical fitness more important than body weight? The latest research confirms that robust physical health matters more than being super skinny and that some very thin women may still be at risk for significant health problems.

According to a report in the British Medical Journal, doing battle with excess kilos doesn’t guarantee better health. For most people it is natural to have a few curves; this does not mean we are “fat” or unhealthy. It’s the amount of physical exercise that we do that is the key to our health, not our dress size.

The chronic physical inactivity that plagues so many people is linked to several serious “lifestyle” diseases. Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease are all linked to unhealthy choices in food and activity level. The heart is a muscular organ and needs to be exercised to stay strong just like all our other muscles. You can be very thin and follow a good diet, but if the heart isn’t trained, your health is in jeopardy.

If you are overweight and fit, you may outlive a thin or normal-weight person who has a low level of cardiovascular fitness. So our body weight has less to do with longevity and health than the diet gurus would have us believe.

How Fit is Fit?

Physical fitness can be measured using accelerometers and these reveal that most people don’t exercise nearly enough to stay healthy. If you’re 25-45 years old you should be able to run or cycle non-stop for 20 minutes and walk quickly up six flights of stairs without pause. Anything less and you’re considered unfit, or so says Gavin Sandercock of the University of Essex. BMI (Body Mass Index) and body weight don’t really matter; fitness is the key to health.

This doesn’t mean that being overweight is healthy, just that being slightly overweight and fit can still be considered physically fit and healthy. Very slim people can hide layers of internal fat and high cholesterol. Normal weight is ideal, but even more important is paying attention to training our heart and lungs to optimal fitness levels. Of course, being very overweight or obese is not healthy and should never be encouraged.

Stress, poor diet and obesity all lead to health conditions that take years off your life. Most indicative of poor condition is the amount of belly fat we carry. This is a risk factor independent of diet and exercise and has even been linked to an increased risk of cancer. When somebody is overweight their risk of heart disease increases by 20% but underweight people are an incredible 60% more at risk.

Measuring our waistlines may be more useful than BMI calculations. Women’s waists should measure 32 inches, men’s less than 37 inches. Concentrate on these rather than BMI measurements when determining which fitness program is best for you.

Make lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity (take up a sport or start running and do aerobics), eat less fatty meat and full-fat dairy produce, don’t smoke and drink moderately. This gives you the best chance of cheating the mirror and beating Father Time at his own game. Staying healthy is a choice, so forget about how much you weigh and choose a strong, healthy heart that goes the distance instead.

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