Top 6 Medical Misconceptions

The truth is, an amazing number of our ideas about health are misconceived or simply wrong. Here’s a handful that have turned out to be off the mark.

MYTH #1: “Overweight” Means “Unhealthy”

A debate has raged in medicine for years: Can you be fat and fit?

To a degree, this debate boils down to a numbers game. Many doctors use body mass index (BMI) to determine whether a patient’s weight is healthy or unhealthy. The BMI is a number that describes the ratio of your weight to your height. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having a BMI under 25 means your weight is normal, 25 to 25.9 means you are overweight, and 30 or higher means you are obese. It’s clear, however, that this breakdown is oversimplified and in some cases inaccurate. For starters, many buff athletes with chiseled pecs and bulging biceps have high BMIs, since muscle weighs a lot.

More important, research has shown that a person’s weight isn’t necessarily the best measure of overall health. One study of thousands of men by researchers at the Cooper Institute in Dallas underscored this fact. Researcher Steven N. Blair, PED (who once told the New York Times, “I may be short, fat, and bald, but I’m fit.”), led a team that tracked more than 25,000 men over 23 years. They recorded who got sick and who died and who didn’t.

In the end, Dr. Blair and his colleagues surprised the world by showing that men who were overweight or obese but exercised regularly had half the death rate of normal-weight men who were out of shape. In fact, Dr. Blair’s study found that being in poor physical condition was far more dangerous than simply being overweight, increasing the risk of premature death as much as having type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol, or smoking cigarettes does.

While this study suggests that heavyweights can be healthy people, it’s important to keep in mind that lugging around a lot of abdominal fat does appear to be unhealthy. In fact, having a big belly increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. (What’s big? For men, 40 inches or more; for women, 35 inches or more. To measure your waist, wrap a tape measure around your bare abdomen just above the hipbones so it’s snug but not tight. Inhale, exhale, and measure.) Fortunately, exercise burns belly flab, which is all the more reason to keep hitting the treadmill if you’re overweight.

Next: MYTH #2: Your Fate Is Already Sealed

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