You know the old proverb: never judge a book by its cover. The saying is equally true when it comes to judging fitness. I have worked with people of all sizes and shapes and quickly learned physical appearance is not always a clear indicator of fitness. But how can this be? How can you have excess body fat and be fit?

I carefully contemplated the title of this article for a long time. I don’t like using the word ‘fat’ to describe anyone, you have fat not are fat. But I didn’t want to use the term ‘overweight’ and get in to the classic argument about BMI not being the best measure. I gladly tell anyone that according to BMI I am ‘overweight’ but without sounding like a putz; I don’t doubt I am fit. I wanted to talk here about; can you have an excess of body fat and be fit- but that was a less catchy title.

Whenever someone joins up at set U free for personal training or intro to exercise sessions, I always like start with a general assessment of their fitness level. Now I will shamefully admit, when I first started, I only did this fitness assessment with people who appeared to be overweight. I naively assumed that people who were roughly a healthy weight and size would have a decent level of fitness, and those people with extra body fat would be more untrained. How wrong I was.

I have worked with ladies who are a size 22 who can smash out high intensity intervals on the rower, and I have worked with size 8s who struggle to do a minute of step ups. You really cannot accurately predict someone’s fitness based on their physical appearance.

But how can this be?

Now this is oversimplifying a little, but as a rule, fitness is determined by how active you are; the frequency which you are active, the type of activity you do, and the intensity which you do it. Body shape, or rather body fat storage, is determined by your diet; the frequency which you eat, the types of food you eat and possibly the intensity with which you eat it.

You can be keeping yourself very active, you can even be working out pretty hard at the gym every day, but if in-between sessions you feed your body too much of the wrong foods, then you will not burn an ounce of body fat. Your body doesn’t like to use fat as fuel, even if it has plenty of it to spare. Breaking down stored body fat is hard work, and your body doesn’t have to do it if there is always a surplus of energy from food to use first. So you can be exercising and getting fitter but not be loosing body fat. So the short and quick answer is yes- you can have fat and be fit.

Does that mean it is healthy to be fat?

Here is what you really want to know; is it healthy being overweight? Well, the truth is that no matter how fit you feel with excess body fat, and even if you are currently in good health, the chances are that long term you will be healthier without it. Carrying excess body fat puts additional strain on your body, most obviously on your joints such as hips, knees and ankles, but more worryingly it puts additional strain on your organs. There are a number of medical concerns directly related to obesity including; type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, as well as some cancers.

One problem is that it is difficult to determine how much of a person’s excess fat is subcutaneous adipose tissue (the soft stuff that sits just under the skin and gives us bingo wings, wobbly thighs and a squishy bottom) and how much of that excess fat is visceral fat (the nasty stuff that clings to your internal organs putting them under additional strain). If you carry additional body fat around your central area (tummy and chest) then this is a strong indicator that you have too much visceral fat and are at higher risk of developing obesity related health problems.

Is it better to be fat and fit, or a healthy weight and unfit?

The simple answer is that the ideal situation is to be a healthy weight and fit. However, if you do have an excess of body fat and not currently looking to reduce it, then keeping fit and active will help to maintain your health and reduce the risk of developing obesity related medical conditions, compared to being overweight and inactive. Exercise has a number of proven health benefits and these are not dismissed because you are overweight. If you are frequently active then you will be challenging your cardiovascular system (your heart and lungs) which will reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to overweight individuals who are inactive.

Keeping active will also help increase bone strength, muscular strength and endurance, maintain flexibility and range of movement around your joints. Exercise can also help in reducing stress levels, as well as help with mental health including depression and anxiety. Safe to say that regardless to your body fat levels, keeping active is important, and will make you healthier than if you were doing nothing at all.

There has in recent years been a lot of research looking at activity levels of obese persons and risk of medical conditions, to determine if you are better to be obese and fit, or a healthy weight but unfit. The conclusions are often varied, but if you are interested in knowing more this peer reviewed, international paper published in 2003 studied 43,265 individuals over a 30 year period and came to some interesting conclusions, which are summarised here.

In summary

  • Yes you can have fat and be fit.
  • If you have an excess of body fat then keeping active will help you keep healthy and reduce your risk of developing obesity related conditions.
  • However, long term I would advise you remain aware to the increased medical risks of carrying excess body fat, and regularly monitor your health using key indicators such as your blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol levels. Your GP or health care professional can help monitor all of these.
  • If your health does start to suffer, or your doctor advises you are at increased risk of developing obesity related medical conditions, then maybe it is time to compliment your active lifestyle with a more balanced diet to help reduce body fat.

I always love to hear your feedback on blog posts. So please do get in touch with any comments.

Jennie x


I am Jennie, founder of set U free fitness. After my own difficult weight loss journey, I became passionate about helping people live a healthier happier life. This blog is  a combination of my professional knowledge as specialist in obesity management, and my personal experiences as someone who continues to battle the challenges of living a healthier, happier life.

If you enjoyed this blog, then you might also like to read these previous posts about healthy eating and holidays:

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