Fitness for Every Body

I’ve been working on a review article for a new journal, Fat Studies, on recent exercise DVDs for larger people. The DVDs (Yoga, Belly Dancing, Scuba) are all great – I won’t pre-empt the review here.

A drawing by Ingrid Laue for the Large as Life Fitness Program, c. 1981-2.

Instead, I’ll note that in preparation for writing the article I reviewed some new and older medical studies on the benefits of exercise for people who are defined medically as “obese.” This research, published in places like The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that exercise, cardiovascular health and blood pressure, rather than weight and food intake, are key determinants of health.

When I talk to people about my research on fat women’s organizations, activism and clothing stores, most agree that discrimination against larger bodies is wrong. Most people also agree that it is unfair to make assumptions about a person’s morals or food intake based of their size. Where I most often encounter resistance is to the claim that fat people can be fit. Common sense has taught us that fat people can’t be physically fit because of their size. There isn’t enough muscle there, or there is too much fat, or larger bodies are too slow or insufficiently agile, etc. etc. Contrary to these assumptions, my research and the research of a growing number of medical experts shows that fat people can be fit, flexible and fast, and watching the DVDs for my Fat Studies article I was again reminded of this fact. This doesn’t mean that every fat person is fit, but it does mean that weight is not and shouldn’t be taken as physical evidence of a person’s abilities or commitment to exercise.

Among the most notable studies I’ve seen in the last four years are those by Xuemei Sui of the Department of Exercise Science at the University of South Carolina. Sui’s findings suggest that “fitness is a significant mortality predictor in older adults independent of overall or abdominal adiposity” (emphasis added). Sui’s study of 2603 adults over a 12 year period showed that physically fit adults lived longer, regardless of their body mass index or waist circumference (Journal of the American Medical Association [2007] vol. 298, no. 21). Subsequent research published by Sui and her collaborators has also shown that emotional health, combined with cardiovascular fitness, contributes significantly to longevity (American Journal of Preventative Medicine [2010] vol. 39 no. 5 and Health Education & Behavior [2011] vol. 38 no. 2].

Together, this medical research confirms what adherents of fat exercise have been saying for thirty years: feeling good about yourself and your life and being active are all greater determinants of health than being skinny.

This Thanksgiving, eat lots, exercise and be happy. You’ll live longer.

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