Having a rounder figure might not mean you're less fit than someone who's slim with a six-pack. Experts explain why. By Cheryl Tay
Photo: warrengoldswain / 123rf.com
“Wow, you're so fit!” This is usually what people say when they see someone rocking a six-pack of abs. However, that’s where many are confused between aesthetics and functionality.
Having chiselled arms on top of well-defined abs does not necessarily make one fitter than others. Beyond the superficial, there are many women out there who excel in their areas of sports without a six-pack. In fact, some may not be considered slim by societal standards.
“It is better to be fat and fit, than to be thin and unfit,” says Dr Ben Tan, chief of sports medicine at Changi General Hospital. “Fitness, especially cardiovascular fitness and strength, confers health benefits that can outweigh the detrimental effects of being slightly overweight. For example, unlike obese and sedentary individuals, rugby players do not have an increased risk of heart disease. And sumo wrestlers, despite their heft, rarely get heart attacks - until they retire and become sedentary.”
People exercise for different reasons – some train for performance, others for vanity and for health. Whatever the reasons are, one should not confuse aesthetic outcomes or cultural perceptions with measures of fitness.
Fitness is a very broad term and has many aspects, including strength, stamina, endurance, flexibility, power, speed, agility, coordination, and accuracy.
“Those with defined six-packs or shredded muscles have better muscular strength, but they may not necessarily be fitter in terms of muscular endurance," says Associate Professor Tey Beng Hea, senior consultant Endocrinologist at the Division of Medicine of Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.
"Take the comparison between a weightlifter and a marathoner, who have different body compositions. Similarly, a skinny person may still be fit in terms of cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular endurance and flexibility, while a chubby person will most likely be fitter in terms of muscular strength and flexibility. Overall, it depends on their body composition and what they do in their daily physical activities.”
Fitness can be measured in so many ways, depending on the sport you are in. For example, it can be measured by marathon timing, VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use up in a minute, which determines your exertion capacity), lactate profile, a multi-stage fitness or beep level, grip strength, the weight load you can carry, and the number of reps you can do in a specified time.
Then there is the abdominal circumference and Body Mass Index (BMI), which determines whether you’re within the healthy weight range based on your height, measure adiposity and its distribution, but these are not fitness tests.
The BMI used to be the common man’s yardstick for determining whether he was in shape, but it alone cannot measure health and fitness, says experts.
“Having a normal BMI may not mean that the person is fit,” says Prof Tey. The level of physical fitness can only be determined by an exercise test. In assessing the health risk of a person, attention should be paid to other parameters such as waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio.”
People who are overweight or obese with a BMI of 23 and above are at a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, hypertension and certain types of cancer, but this prediction does not hold true for people who have a higher BMI due to muscle mass, like powerlifters or CrossFitters.
Ultimately, aesthetic appearance is not one of the factors in physical fitness and, logically, it does not affect the ability to perform physical work, says Dr Jason Chia, senior consultant and head of the Sports Medicine & Surgery Clinic at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.