Better to be fit or thin?

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
December 3, 2007 9:00:00 PM PST
This time of the year, many of us overindulge when it comes to food. But a new study says while maintaining a healthy weight is important, regular physical activity may actually help people live longer. Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg.

Keeping weight down is an important health habit. And while that can help ward off disease and help us live longer, the study says that for older people, staying healthy doesn't necesarily mean slimming down. But they do need to get fit, and that can a longer life.

For older people who are heavy or obese, the doctor's top advice may now be not to first get the weight off, but to start exercising. For a longer life, physical fitness appears to be more important than one's weight.

Sixty-eight year-old Bob Markland has exercised regularly for years.

"I think it's very important for older people, in terms of keeping their weight down," he said.

While exercise certainly can keep weight down, it's not the only reason for people to stay physically active. The new study, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows physical activity helps people live longer.

"The more fit people were less likely to die," said Dr. Steven Blair, of the University of South Carolina. "In fact, much less likely to die."

Dr. Blair was among the researchers who measured fatness, fitness and death rates in older Americans. They studied 2,600 people age 60 and older, finding that when it comes to predicting mortality, cardiovascular fitness appears more important than whether someone is fat or not.

They measured fitness by giving individuals treadmill tests, and they followed them for 12 years. No matter what they weighed, those who were the fittest lived the longest.

"Even in individuals who were fat, indeed even in people who were obese, if they were fit, they did not have higher risk of dying," Dr. Blair said.

By exercise, Dr. Blair means 30 minutes of brisk walking five days a week. If you can do that, you're considered fit, whatever your weight.

"In fact, even if you're obese and fit, your death rate is no different than the normal weight person who is fit," he said.

It's a good reason to keep Bob Markland on the move.

"As a 68-year-old fat man, I'm still running 25 miles a week," Markland said.

Remember the prescription...brisk walking for a half hour, five days a week.