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A healthy look at obesity study

Health studies can be frustrating. One day something is good for you; the next day it's bad. You know what we mean. In recent years, we've heard a lot about the nation's obesity epidemic and the health problems associated with being overweight. But over the summer, there were many media reports that said a prominent health research group had found that being overweight is OK - that it can even be good for you. Those stories prompted WFAE's Tina Portman to dig a little deeper and file this report. Mary Anne Ferguson is a 58-year-old grandma. But she's not doing Grandma things. Today, she's lifting weights at the Siskey YMCA in Matthews, hoping to buy herself another 25 years. "I want to live well into my 80's or longer, and have a higher quality of life." Mary Anne is 5-6 and 186 pounds. She's plump. But if you believe the charts you see in doctors' offices, Mary Anne is actually almost clinically obese. Her cholesterol is high. Her doctor is worried. Mary Anne is worried. But some news stories claim that we may worry too much. From Newsweek: You can be fat and healthy at the same time. Or this one, from Globe and Mail newspaper: Get Fat, Live Longer. Could it be true? Well, not exactly. "One of the things that happens as many people age, is that they start to lose weight and they are at risk of becoming very frail," says David Feeny of the Kaiser Center for Health Research in Portland, Ore. Feeny co-authored the study that triggered the media hype. He studied 12 years of health records on 11,000 Canadians. He found that people who were overweight lived longest, especially if they were over the age of 60. "I think maybe moving into older age with a little extra weight may enhance resilience," Feeny says. In other words, it's riskier to be underweight in old age. To live longer, you don't want to be skin and bones. So is Mary Anne, who is closing in on that lucky 60 mark, wasting her time trying to lose weight by fitness walking and pumping iron? "No, I don't think that's a justifiable or appropriate response," Feeney says. "There's no implication here that you should go out and gain weight." People are missing the big picture if they only look at the study's mortality statistics, says Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health. "We know that overweight and obesity increase risk for almost all major chronic diseases, including hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and several forms of cancer." Hu says that for many people, overweight is just a temporary stage on the way to obesity and that even modest weight gain is a red flag. But he says exercise is of great benefit even if it doesn't appear to be helping you lose weight. In fact, in Feeny's study, people who were physically in active had a 43 percent higher risk of dying. That part of the study didn't make the headlines. Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina , says that compared to a normal weight couch potato, someone who is obese and walks for 150 minutes a week has a 50% lower risk of death. Fifty percent. That's huge. Exercise is like a super-drug. If pharmaceutical companies could patent and bottle exercise, they'd have a blockbuster. Until then, Mary Anne and her colleagues at the Siskey YMCA weight management program will have to do it the old fashioned way - with sweat. Every week Mary Anne walks at least 12 miles around her neighborhood and heads to the Y three times a week to lift weights. Within a month, she saw the results. Mary Anne lost a few pounds, she's stronger and her joints don't creak. Mary Anne wants more than just a few extra years of life. She wants them to be good years. "I have a 4-year-old granddaughter and being able to keep up with her and be my image of a grandmother - active and playing and enjoying her - I want to be able to do that a lot."