Does fitness trump thinness?

Getting to a healthy weight and exercising regularly are both important goals. But to increase your odds of a long, healthy life, improving your cardiovascular fitness should be priority No. 1. Even if you're carrying some extra pounds, you can boost your cardiovascular fitness — here's how.

By Joel P. French, Ph.D.

Being thin or being fit: Which is more important? Of course, getting to a healthy weight and exercising regularly are both important goals. But to increase your odds of a long, healthy life, improving your cardiovascular fitness should be priority No. 1, according to scientists who study weight, exercise and longevity.

Consider this example: Mara is at her ideal weight, but she can't walk to the bus stop without getting winded. Michael is overweight, but he can walk up three flights of stairs and hardly feel it. Who has the best chance at a long, healthy life?

Most experts would argue that it's Michael. Despite his extra pounds, his three-day-a-week swimming habit boosts his cardiovascular fitness. That, in turn, lowers his risk of dying prematurely (mortality risk).

Even though Mara isn't overweight, she spends long days at her desk and too many nights in front of a screen.

Zero fitness? You have the most to gain

If you're more like Mara than Michael, you can significantly reduce your mortality risk by simply going from no activity to some activity. Pause for a 15-minute daily walk at an easy pace. Build up to 20 minutes and walk faster, and you'll lower your risk even more.

Getting to a healthy weight is still one of the most important goals you can set for yourself. It can help you avoid or control conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, joint problems and even pregnancy complications.

But if your goal is living well and living long, work on improving your cardiovascular fitness. In fact, unless you're an elite athlete at peak fitness, you'll gain health benefits every time you add distance, time or intensity to your daily activities.

How to measure fitness

Exercise physiologists gauge fitness by looking at your "VO2 max." That's the amount of oxygen your heart can pump throughout your body when you move. (If you're curious, the V is for volume, the O for oxygen.)

You can have your VO2 measured by an exercise physiologist or other fitness expert, who will perform a simple test to see how your heart rate responds as you add exercise intensity by working harder. You'll come away with a target heart rate matched to your current fitness and a plan for how to keep improving.

You can also gauge your VO2 max yourself by looking at how easy or hard it is for you to perform common daily activities.

Dec. 09, 2016 See more In-depth