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Get Down to Basics (Part 3)

Jul 11, 2006

When you see people who are overweight (even if you’re one of them), do you automatically assume that they can’t possibly be physically fit? Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., FACSM shares more of her new best seller, The 7 Step Diabetes Fitness Plan. This week read: What does it mean to be "fit"?

SheriStep 1: Get Down to Basics (Part 3)
What Does It Mean to Be “Fit”?

By Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., FACSM

What does it mean to be “fit”?


When you see people who are overweight (even if you’re one of them), do you automatically assume that they can’t possibly be physically fit even if they exercise regularly? If so, it may be your definition of “fit” that needs to be revised. It’s entirely possible to be fit even while carrying excess body fat. Actually, you may be way off base if you assume that a thin person is healthier than someone with more body fat.

The latest research has shown that, while it’s still best for your overall health to be fit and thin, being fit and fat is at least equal to being a thin, physically inactive “couch potato”—if not better. Does becoming “fit” require a daily trip to the gym or engaging in physical activities you abhor? Luckily, the answer is no—or even fewer of us would ever achieve a fit state. It doesn’t mean you have to be able to complete a marathon or a triathlon, but it does assume that you have the capacity to physically accomplish whatever you want to do without becoming unduly fatigued—such as walking up a flight of stairs; picking up your kids or grandkids; being on-the-go all day working, running errands, volunteering, or doing other activities without stopping much to rest; sleeping well at night and getting up the next day to do it all over again. Being fit also implies that your body is healthy by current medical standards, which includes having a normal blood pressure, high levels of the good type of cholesterol (HDL) in your blood with low levels of the bad (LDL), very few risk factors for cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death for all adults), and no major health problems. Fitness also implies high mental functioning and good emotional health, both of which can be negatively affected by the onset of many chronic health problems.

Of course, by the preceding definition of fitness, having diabetes would automatically disqualify you. However, a long and healthy life with diabetes is entirely achievable—assuming that you are willing to become more physically active and to take a long, hard look at your current diet. For instance, 16 weeks (or less) of 90 minutes of weekly vigorous exercise alone, without any weight loss, will vastly improve the action of your insulin as well as your fitness level—even if you are a middle-aged, overweight, sedentary, prediabetic man. If you restrict your calorie intake at the same time, you’ll experience even greater improvements in your insulin action—maybe even enough to counterbalance any potential negative effects of having diabetes.

How important is your health to you, really?
What are you really willing to do to be healthy? If you were to develop a serious health problem—for example, heart disease, an ailment people with diabetes have a much higher risk of developing than people without diabetes—and your doctor were to tell you that taking a single “miracle” pill every day would cure you, you wouldn’t forget to take it, would you? There’s a reason why people always say, “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” After all, who doesn’t want to have good health? But Americans take more prescribed medicines than anyone else in the world, and many of us are still unhealthy.

So, what if the instructions from your doctor were instead to “take” that pill every day, put it in your pocket, and go out for a walk or a bike ride, to the park, to the gym, or anywhere to do anything physically active for at least 30 minutes a day? Does it still seem like a miraculous cure to you now? Given that more than half of people drop out of exercise programs within the first six months, in all likelihood the pill would be nothing more than a dud.

Exercise really is the best medicine
In my professional opinion, exercise truly is a “magic bullet” for optimizing quality of life, and if you have diabetes, the physical and mental health benefits are magnified. I’ll recap some of the countless benefits for you. From a metabolic standpoint, it’s always better to be fit, no matter your body weight. Exercise enhances your body’s sensitivity to insulin, which usually results in better BG control; many chronic diseases in addition to type 2 diabetes are related to insulin sensitivity (including hypertension and heart disease). Exercise may also enhance your insulin production as long as enough beta cells remain in your pancreas.

Regular exercise also lowers your risk of premature death, heart disease, certain types of cancers (colon, for example), anxiety and depression, osteoporosis, and severe arthritic symptoms. It even helps you sleep better, which is especially important since sleeping too little (e.g., only five hours a night) has been linked in recent studies with increased incidence of overweight and obesity, not to mention insulin resistance—even in healthy young adults. In fact, if exercise is not a potential cure for everything that ails you, then I really don’t know what is.


In two weeks, I will share Part 4 of Step 1 from my latest book, The 7 Step Diabetes Fitness Plan: Living Well and Being Fit with Diabetes, No Matter Your Weight (2006). Information about all of my books, my many articles, my research, and more is available on my web site: www.SheriColberg.com.

Tip for the day: The reality of dieting is that, over the long haul, it just does not work for most people. Not only does it become progressively harder to lose weight the longer you stay on a diet, but at least nine out of ten dieters who have successfully lost weight ultimately regain the pounds that they struggled to shed.

See more features from Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., FACSM