Last week, I went to hear a talk by Dr. Steven Blair, a world-renowned researcher on the role of physical activity in maintaining good health. Dr. Blair has done extensive research on physical fitness and reducing heart disease and is one of the most cited exercise scientists in the world. Last week he was awarded the Bloomberg Manulife Prize for the Promotion of Active Health. Click here to learn more about Dr. Blair's research and his tips for healthy living.
I was told that the talk I heard will be available on the website, but I don't think it's been posted yet. It's well worth watching and I'll keep an eye out for it. As soon as it's posted, I'll provide the link. But in the meantime, here are my impressions of what I heard...and saw.
Readers who are dedicated weight-loss mavens are probably scratching their heads and wondering how this short, portly gentleman could have anything intelligent to say about good health. The man is FAT. And everyone knows that FAT = UNHEALTHY. Well, my impression of Dr. Blair was that he radiates energy and excellent health. I assumed he was in his early 60s. He's actually 72. His face shines, he's got a pleasant, strong voice and there's not a trace of breathlessness or any other indication that his weight is slowing him down.
In fact, Dr. Blair was, up until recently, a dedicated runner. His wife, who was in the audience, and looks like your aunt Rosie or your wonderful grandma who had that nice comfy lap you sat in as a child, continues to run. Dr. Blair now "only" walks 5,000,000 steps a year. Yes, that's 5 million steps. It works out to an average of 13,600 steps a day. Definitely not someone who lets the grass grow under his feet.
But now, on to the talk:
Dr. Blair's message was clear and simple: your state of health depends first and foremost on whether or not you regularly engage in physical activity. And the physical activity you participate in does not have to be excessive or "hard core" in the least. In countless studies, morbidity is reduced by 50% simply by engaging in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, five days a week (Dr. Blair also suggest two sessions per week of strength training). Those who engage in significantly more exercise will further reduce their morbidity by 10-15%. In other words, those two hours a day of heart-pounding, sweat-producing running, weight lifting, rowing, rock climbing, karate, etc. etc. will make a relatively minimal difference in your health. It's the 30 minutes of walking (and no, you don't have to speed walk, just try to walk fast enough to pant a bit but still be able to keep up a conversation), housework, gardening, swimming or whatever gets you up and moving that will make you truly healthy and enable you to remain bright-eyed and bushy tailed as you age.
He cited countless studies to support this contention and I'm not going to go over them here. I'm not fast enough at note taking to have recorded everything he said. Again, I'll post the URL as soon as it's put on the site.
What really thrilled me about Dr. Blair's talk, though, was when he got angry. On several occasions, he referred to the weight "cartel" that's desperately trying to convince us that the only true measure of health is weight. It was thrilling to hear him debunk this myth. He clearly stated that fitness, not the lack of fatness, keeps us healthy. He railed against the bias and discrimination that overweight people--himself included--are subject to. I specifically asked for his opinion on the State of Georgia's campaign to fight childhood obesity, which features posters of sad looking fat children with captions that muse about their longevity (likely to die younger than their parents), their eating habits (overeating, not big bones, made them that way) and future health problems (diabetes). Dr. Blair said that he didn't know about this specific campaign, however he believes that such attitudes simply foster discrimination and do little to improve health.
The last question of the evening was the one "everyone had been waiting for". After giving an entire talk about the fact that all the research points to a strong link between being unfit and being in poor health rather than any link between simply being overweight/obese and being unhealthy, a relatively slim woman raised her hand and asked, "but can you really be obese and fit?" Calmly, Dr. Blair asked her whether you can be thin and unhealthy, thin and nasty, or thin and unfit. He said we should forget about weight and stop focusing on it. Essentially, he asked why we continue to flog a dead horse (my words, not his), in other words making weight loss our foremost (if not only) goal, when we know that the vast majority of those who lose weight can't keep it off and--more importantly--it doesn't play a critical role in improving health. He said that we should be concentrating on healthy eating, stress reduction and improving fitness if we want to see a real improvement in our health.
Hearing Dr. Blair speak was a wonderful experience. But it was depressing too, knowing that his message of regular, moderate physical activity for fitness and good health is being absolutely drowned out by the weight-loss cartel. It is truly a tragedy that so many people spend so much time and physical and mental energy chasing the mirage of the so-called healthy BMI while often totally ignoring simple, positive activities that have been shown to have a much more significant and lasting effect on their health.