The relationship between changes in the amount of exercise you take, the amount of fat in your body, as measured by weight and BMI, and common fat-related diseases is not simple. This is because of the importance of deep abdominal fat on internal organs to your health.
Most people are aware that being overweight is not good for you. Even if they aren’t aware of the health impacts they have a sense that they would look better if they could lose a bit of weight.
Of course you don’t want to take this too far and become obsessed with the type of body images that are both unattainable and, indeed, undesirable for the most of us.
So, there is a sense that what we see when we look in the mirror or step on the scales is giving us a signal that can lead to a healthier lifestyle. There is a lot of truth in this. Whether or not we respond to this signal is a different matter.
But there is also a trap here that goes beyond the dangers of becoming overly image conscious. It is this: excess fat is indeed unhealthy and is often symptomatic of underlying unhealthy life choices. But what we see is not necessarily a good indication of the dangers posed by fat in our bodies.
Abdominal Fat and Health
The problem is that we can see what we might think of as the ‘surface’ fat on our bodies. Exercise and diet changes will have beneficial effects in reducing this fat, even if the benefits of exercise are not always reflected in crude measures you might take using a scale or a tape.
But this surface fat is not the most dangerous type of fat in our bodies. The worst type of fat cannot be measured using a tape or body mass index. This is the internal, visceral fat that you cannot see or feel but that affects your heart and liver, as well as abdominal organs and the entire body.
The good news is that you can do something about this abdominal fat. And the best way to tackle it is through exercise.
However, looking at your weight alone means that you won’t know if you are reducing fat everywhere in the body or just near the surface. If you rely on just measuring your weight or BMI you can end up underestimating the health benefits of losing weight.
Exercise and Abdominal Fat
There has been a tendency to see fat in the body as a sort of inert storage. The newer way is the view fat as an active organ of the body. This means that it is necessary to distinguish between the location of fat of in the body to understand the potential impact of different treatments and the needs to measure different fats through different means.
This distinction also helps to explain why some people who are obese get illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes while others don’t. It is not just the total amount of fat that matters but the amount of visceral abdominal fat.
An important scientific research study examined the relative impacts of standard medical treatment, involving pharmaceuticals, and exercise on abdominal fat deep in the belly. To get around the measurement problem the researchers use a CT or MRI to examine changes in visceral fat in participants over a 6-month period.
The results were clear: both exercise and medicine reduced the presence of visceral fat. However, the reductions were notably more significant per pound of body weight lost for those participants who relied on exercise. In the words of one of the researchers ‘exercise can actually melt visceral fat’.
This research supports the growing evidence that exercise will have health benefits, as a result of lowering the total amount of fat in your body, even though simple methods you may use to measure fat, such as weight, external body measurements and BMI, might suggest there has been no change.
Because of this, the knowledge that exercise greatly reduces the amount of fat does not conflict with the findings, as discussed at length in this article, that exercise alone is not a particularly good way to lose weight.
It also explains why inter-personal comparisons based on weight or tape measurements are not a good indicator of the relative health risks facing people. Further it supports the idea that a combination of treatments, that should include exercise, can help lower dangerous body fat and reduce the potential threat of fat-related heart diseases and diabetes.