Good news if you’re overweight—you still can be fit, as long as you’re physically active.


Researchers at Dallas’s Cooper Institute recruited 22,000 men in a study designed to look at the relationship between body fat and fitness. First, they measured the participants’ body compositions and gave them treadmill tests. Then they tracked the men for eight years. Result: Men who were overweight but fit were two times less likely to have died than those who were lean but unfit. Those who were lean and exercised were healthier than fat people who exercised, but the difference was small.

Being fit does not require high-level athletic training—it simply means that you should aim for a cumulative 30 minutes of moderate-intensity daily activity such as walking.

Other studies, including one that utilized data from the long-term Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, had similar results. In the Harvard study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, those who were physically active had lower death rates—regardless of whether they were lean, overweight or obese—than lean people who exercised less than one hour a week.

Also, studies have shown that people who are thin, whether or not they exercise, tend to have higher mortality rates than those who are heavy. This is partly because very lean people lack the physical reserves to keep them going during times of stress, such as when they have a serious illness. Additional research shows that overweight heart attack patients tend to have better outcomes, including higher survival rates, than patients who are not overweight.


If you have to pick a single health goal, it’s generally better to get fit than to lose weight. To begin…

Check your fitness. If you’re fit, you should be able to walk 30 minutes without stopping…and climb a flight of stairs without gasping for breath. If you can’t, you’ll want to see a doctor and ease into an exercise plan. Heart attacks often occur when sedentary people suddenly face a cardiovascular stressor, such as overly vigorous exercise.

Exercise consistently. You don’t need hard-core exercise to stay fit. The duration of exercise—and doing it regularly—is more important.

Exercise without workouts. You can achieve fitness as you go about your day. Examples…

Walk. Every hour of walking can increase your life expectancy by two hours. At work, take the stairs instead of the elevator…go for a walking break instead of a coffee break…make walking tours part of your vacations.

Squeeze in exercise. Bring a resistance band to work, and do short workouts at your desk. At home, stand up rather than sit when watching TV or talking on the phone. When reaching for something on a high shelf, stretch up on your toes to get it. Squat down to pick up something low.