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Ditch the gym? Overweight people may outlive everyone else, study finds

It's the new year, and with the opening of a new calendar comes the annual self-defeating obsession with our bodies. But amidst articles on how to lose weight and eat healthy, a new study questioning what constitutes a healthy weight has garnered much scrutiny.

The study, conducted by Katherine Flegal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, says that people who are overweight tend to outlive everyone else.

The exact finding was that people who were overweight were 6 per cent less likely to die during the study period than the rest of the population.

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Now, before you shred that gym membership application and shove another doughnut into your mouth, consider these two things:

  • It’s people who are overweight, not obese. Flegal used the World Health Organization’s definition of Body Mass Index (BMI) to delineate between underweight, normal weight, overweight and obese.
  • Flegal’s study – which is actually a review of over 100 studies on weight and mortality from the past six years that included 2.88-million participants– has been widely criticized.

The uproar over her conclusion is perhaps one of the most shocking things regarding the study, since the idea that having a bit of extra weight helps you out in the long run isn't new. Flegal actually came up with the same conclusion in 2005, which is what spurred her current study.

And doctors have been deriding BMI as a measure of health foryearsnow.

Flegal is unfazed by the surprise over under-reporting both by the media and the scientific community. Time paraphrased her as saying: "Because many researchers don't expect to find a benefit associated with being overweight, they may not believe their results are valid if they find such a connection, which may make them more hesitant to publish them and invite review and discussion about what may be driving the trend."

But some health professionals disagree with her suggestion as well as her methods.

"Some portion of those thin people are actually sick, and sick people tend to die sooner," said Donald Berry, a biostatistician at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, in a report from the Associated Press.

Others are frightened by the message that Flegal's study may be inadvertently sending to the public. The BBC quoted Tam Fry from the British National Obesity Forum as saying this was a "horrific message" to be propagating.

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"Huge pieces of evidence go against this, countless other studies point in the other direction," added Prof. John Wass, the vice-president of the Royal College of Physicians in London. "Have you ever seen a 100-year-old human being who is overweight? The answer is you probably haven't."

Sure, but if you make it to 100, you've probably found time in your life to fulfill that nagging resolution to get fit anyway.

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About the Author

Madeleine White is the Assistant National Editor for The Globe and Mail. She has been with the Globe since 2011 and previously worked in the Globe's Video and Features departments, covering topics ranging from fitness and health to real estate to indigenous education. More

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