I hope you’re intrigued by the title, because you should be. If you’ve never heard of the skinny-fat phenomenon, it’s pretty basic: someone looks superficially skinny and fit with fairly loose-fitting clothes on, but in reality, the person isn’t what some would consider “fit” at all. If you look closer or see this body type in skin-tight clothing, you can tell the leg muscles may be underdeveloped, there’s no shape to the shoulders or arms, and a muffin-top is likely spilling over their skinny jeans. It’s a disproportionate amount of fat mass and lean body mass for the relative size of the body. The person may look fit and healthy (because he or she is relatively thin), but if asked to run a mile without stopping or lift up a semi-heavy object, they probably don’t stand a chance.
People with this body type are usually sedentary most of their day and they don’t regularly lift weights or exercise. They are naturally skinny thanks to genetics. And they don’t consume the healthiest diet on top of this – leading them to a decreased amount of lean muscle tissue and an increased amount of body fat. I won’t get into all of the health consequences that this can lead to down the road, but I will give you one. Although these folks look healthy, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. The Journal of the American Medical Association released a study in 2012 that evaluated normal weight (a BMI of 18.5-24.99) people and their incidence of Type II Diabetes and what that might mean for their long-term mortality risk. What they found among the population followed was a higher mortality rate among normal weight people than overweight people. These normal weight people (with a higher mortality risk than the overweight people, which seems to most as backwards) may be considered “metabolically obese”, even though on the outside they may look perfectly fine. I don’t need research studies to tell you that being a little overweight might be better than being “metabolically obese”, but it doesn’t hurt. Like I said, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And the health status in question of the inside for these “skinny-fat” people was worse than it was for the overweight and obese people throughout the study.
The moral of the story here is to avoid being sedentary as much as possible and regularly exercise and lift some weights; even if you’re already overweight and the scale doesn’t seem to budge, you’re still benefitting from all of your efforts. The slightly overweight individual who exercises regularly will have stronger muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments and a stronger cardiovascular system than the person who appears fit but is far from it. The more lean muscle tissue you have and the less fat mass you have (to an extent), the better. So, next time you admire someone for how skinny they look while you bust your butt in the gym 5 days per week but are still 10-15 pounds above your goal weight, remember the benefits you’re earning on the inside. If you want to decrease your chances of ever being “skinny-fat”, don’t spend countless hours per week doing cardio. Get yourself into a weight room 3, 4 or 5 days per week and follow a regular cardio training schedule on the side.
Carnethon, Mercedes R., et al. “Association of weight status with mortality in adults with incident diabetes.” Jama 308.6 (2012): 581-590.