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.


3 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Be “Fit”?

  1. Katie Aldridge

    Hi Sheri,

    I’m a Type 1. I started exercising regularly about 2 years ago. Before exercising, my A1C was 5.5. After 2 years of increasingly demanding exercise, my A1C has creeped up slowly to 6.1. I still have all my good habits of checking blood sugar and eating well, but exercising makes for a lot more complexity in managing my blood sugars!

    I know that 6.1 is still close to normal, but I stress about this upward trend. My question is this: how fit is too fit for a Type 1? I wonder if I only did light exercise like walking, could I control my blood sugars better? I know that exercise is important for health and longevity. But are there health benefits to being super fit with a higher A1C as opposed to moderately fit with a lower A1C?

  2. shericolberg Post author

    It may be simply that your “honeymoon” period is over and your insulin needs are greater than they once were. Once you stop making insulin and have to take more, it does get harder to balance out everything for exercise.

    I don’t think you need to cut back on your exercise. It just may take some more playing around with your regimen changes to figure out how to balance out the insulin over time with your food intake and activities. Many people with type 1 diabetes are highly active!

    You may want to take a look at your intake of rapidly-absorbed carbs in particular, though, to assess whether you’re chasing them with insulin and over- or under-correcting. If you cut back on those types of foods, you may find your blood sugars easier to control.

    Sheri Colberg, PhD

  3. Katie Aldridge

    Thank you for posting so promptly to answer my questions! It’s such a relief to find some guidance about fitness and diabetes! I will try your suggestions right away. I’m so glad to hear that it’s ok for me to keep being active!


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