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Being skinny and strong isn’t healthier than being fat and strong

The idea that being strong is more important than being skinny isn’t a bad one, but the pictures used to illustrate this mantra are almost always of women who are, well, extremely skinny. Sure they’re probably strong, too, but their defining characteristic is very, very low levels of body fat. It’s like we traded in one unrealistic standard — skinny — for an even more unrealistic one — skinny and ripped.

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And as someone who spent a lot of years in the bodybuilding world, I can tell you that it’s not a standard particularly concerned with health. People go to extreme lengths to diet and exercise away every last particle of fat on their bodies. I remember talking backstage to one man who, by anyone’s definition, was the perfect definition of fit: huge, well-muscled, “shrink wrapped” abs. But he was almost in tears because he said walking was so painful due to the loss of the fat pads on the bottoms of his feet. Ouch.

This is one reason why I was so excited to read a new study, just published in the American Journal of Cardiology, that provides some scientific data to back up what I’ve come to believe: That, when it comes to health, fit is way more important than fat. Researchers looked at the data from nearly 6,500 people and found that “regardless of a person’s level of fat mass, a higher level of muscle mass helps reduce the risk of death.”

It should be noted that people who had healthy levels of body fat (not too low, not too high) and plenty of muscle had the best outcomes. But the fit-with-fat group weren’t far behind, and they were definitely ahead of the group that was thinner and had little muscle. So, yep, more muscle equals longer life.

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But that’s science; how does this apply to the real world? Two thoughts immediately stuck out to me:

1. Don’t wait to be thin before you try and get fit. As anyone who’s tried to lose weight knows, it’s extremely difficult to both build muscle and lose fat at the same time. But this study shows that perhaps we should flip the conventional wisdom and, according to the researchers, “encourage people to participate in resistance exercises as a part of healthy lifestyle changes, rather than focusing primarily on and monitoring weight loss.” So, don’t be one of those people who waits to go to the gym until they feel like they look good enough to go to the gym.

2. You really can’t tell someone’s health by looking at them. We have this idea that if someone is overweight, they can’t possibly be healthy or that overweight women should only lift weights as a way to lose weight. Both are dangerously untrue, and we need to stop with all our cultural judgeiness. Not only does fat-shaming someone not help them lose weight (and makes you a crappy person), but it’s focusing on the wrong thing. Muscle is more important to living a long, healthy life than having a low weight. And women in particular need to hear this message, since so many of us are afraid of lifting weights because we don’t want to look bigger. When it comes to muscle, bigger is better.

Now, where’s the Instagram quote for that?

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