Does fitness offset fatness?

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

These days, most adults are overweight, not active, or both. If you could change just one—become active or lose weight—which would be better?

At least for men, being more fit may have a bigger health payoff than losing weight, according to a new study of more than 14,000 well-off middle-aged men who are participating in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study. Researchers followed their health, weight, and exercise habits for 11 years. They estimated how physically fit the men were by calculating their metabolic equivalents (METs) from a treadmill test.

Compared with men whose fitness declined over the course of the study, those who maintained their fitness levels reduced their odds of dying from cardiovascular disease or any other cause by about 30%, even if they didn’t lose any excess weight. Those who improved their fitness levels saw a 40% reduction.

Body-mass index (BMI), a measurement that takes weight and height into account, was not associated with mortality. The results were published in the journal Circulation.

What is “fitness”

Fitness is a measure of how well your heart, blood vessels, blood, and lungs supply your muscles with oxygen during sustained exercise. It also takes into account the ability of your muscles to use that oxygen.

The most straightforward way to gauge fitness is to use a treadmill to measure peak exercise capacity. That means you run on a treadmill as its speed and incline are progressively increased until you can’t go any further. Exercise capacity is usually measured in METs. One MET is the amount of oxygen you use when sitting still or sleeping. The number of METs at peak exercise capacity is determined by a formula based on your speed and the incline at your peak.

Make a leap

Maintaining a healthy weight and being active are two of the best things you can do for your health. But what if you are overweight and inactive? This study and others suggest that getting more activity is the best place to start if you want to improve your health.

It doesn’t matter where you are starting from. If your fitness is low today, you can boost it with regular physical activity that challenges your body. That means working your body hard enough to speed up your heartbeat and breathing. If you need help getting started, a Special Health Report called Exercise: A program you can live with, from Harvard Medical School, can help.

If you don’t regularly work your heart, lungs, and muscles, then any increase in activity is great. Burning an extra 300 calories a week, the equivalent of raking leaves for an hour, can improve health. And with exercise, more is usually better.

If you already carry extra pounds despite ramping up your exercise, this study—and hundreds before it—suggest you still want to try to shed them. Getting down into a healthy weight range is good for long-term health.

Maintaining fitness and a healthy weight is the winning one-two punch.


  1. Cesar

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  2. Abbey of Ab Circle Pro Australia

    The problem with today’s society is that more and more people prioritize work over health. They occupy themselves with so much work in order to earn more, and ultimately neglect their health on the process. Little did they know that the money they strive so hard to earn just goes into hospital bills and medications all because they paid more attention to wealth than health. Wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy your hard earned cash on other means rather than spend it on medical bills?

  3. Scott

    The hardest part of any fitness program is to get started on it and keeping it regular.

    Once this habit has been cultivated it is a much easier road to travel

  4. Anonymous

    I think it does, as a 25 year veteran fitness trainer and now a full-time marketing company expert I have gained about 20 pounds since I started doing marketing full-time but I still exercise 2 to 3 times a week for about an hour each time. So while I am still much fatter I still believe I am healthy. As a Calgary Marketing company I’m always looking for great articles I follow your health Harvard blog a regular basis and I am going to send your blog to hundreds of my clients and post kind of Backlinks. I hope it’s okay.
    I think the information you posted very very valuable and I hope you don’t mind if I Digg it to.

  5. Jane

    Great Information you have hear!

    Hope there will be more of this next time..

    Jane 🙂

  6. Anonymous

    It seems reasonable to believe that a healthy weight and exercise together equal a more fit human being. Great article, lots of ‘food for thought’!

  7. Brooks

    Pretty interesting. To be honest I don’t think that fitness offsets fatness. I think they go hand and hand. People are so concerned about the way they look, it should be more about whether or not you are going to live for the next 20 years. Seeing all of these obese people makes me downright sick. I hope the US pulls their heads out of the dorito bag and really steps it up.

  8. Reg

    this a great information 🙂
    i agree with what you’ve posted here, that we can boost our fitness with regular physical activity. and that will decrease health problems. 🙂

  9. 99Review

    Hey Howard.. Thanks for your information.

    I want to ask to you, because from morning until evening I was busy working so that at the time could not be exercising to achieve fitness.

    Actually that’s what is meant by fitness? whether the body feels comfortable after exercise or during the day we feel comfortable, or do we farthest from the disease?

    I exercise two times a week for badminton, from 7 – 11pm, whether it can keep my bodies stay fit or vice versa? considering the exercise carried out at night?

    Thanks for your article.

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  11. Savannah

    Rattling nice design and style and great subject material, hardly anything else we want :D.

  12. Anonymous

    hello Howard,
    thank you very much for posting this very informative article, I agree with everything that you said. I myself am a very active person who works out at least one hour a day.
    I work in a dispatch office at a Calgary moving company and sit at a desk all day long.
    I find if I don’t take the time to exercise I don’t sleep very well and I tend to eat junk food more.
    I hope you don’t mind if I share this article with many of my co-workers as we are all stuck in the same boat.
    Thanks again for posting such a true article I hope this encourages people to take the time for themselves to be healthy.

  13. Anonymous

    hey Howard, great article.
    As a 25 year fitness trainer who does work out as much as he should anymore because now I do full-time Marketing instead I totally agree 100%.
    As a data two beautiful young girls my challenges find the time to work out as much as it did before hand obviously what I was doing in my fitness program let me work out full-time.
    Now as a Calgary Marketing company, not so much, stuck at a desk but I believe what you’re saying brings 1000% true.
    It’s pretty simple actually exercise a regular basis, three times a week, for one hour each time and you will have a super great fitness level as opposed to people to work out all.
    I want to thank you again Howard for creating a great article because it’s what I’m saying for 25 years it’s like to see someone else saying it and hopefully it’ll encourage other people to exercise more.
    I’m sitting here with my my clients.
    and we are both reading your article.
    I hope you don’t mind of a crate a whole bunch link fax your site.

  14. Chris McBrien

    What is interesting is the number of overweight athletes that act as role models to so many. One has to look no further than Prince Fielder, David Ortiz or C.C. Sabathia to see this. A shame really.

  15. Sandi

    Thank you for this information. With new weight loss schemes popping up all the time (and everyone posting on their Facebook page how much weight they lost in just a few weeks’), many people think it’s just about the diet. We must move our bodies AND fuel them with good nutrition. I will share this with my friends.

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