This has been a confusing year for Texas’s overweight majority. First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fatness had become such an epidemic that it would soon be a larger public health hazard than smoking— alarming news for a state whose major cities routinely rank as some of the fattest in America. Then a group of scientists reported that being “pleasingly plump” might actually ensure a longer life than being thin. But the CDC—them again—then claimed that the mortality rates in that study were unfairly skewed because a lot of the skinny people included were skinny because they were sick. What gives? Can you really be fat and live happily ever after? According to Steven Blair, the president and CEO of the Cooper Institute, a leading fitness research center in Dallas, the answer is a counterintuitive yes.

Size Doesn’t Always Matter.

A long life, says Blair, does not necessarily depend on your body mass index (BMI), that abstruse reduction of your height, weight, and sex into a single number used as a measure of your relative size. Blair should know. “Look,” he told me. “I’m about five foot five, a hundred and ninety-five pounds. Fat, right? But then, I run twenty-five miles a week. I’m in great shape. According to my BMI, I’m obese, and yet other numbers, like my blood pressure and my cholesterol, are low. That means I’m healthier than a lot of skinny people who don’t exercise.” What really counts, then, is not weight but overall health, and Blair points to Cooper Institute patients as evidence: Up to 40 percent of the men and women whose BMIs qualify them as “obese” have normal blood pressure and cholesterol numbers and perform to a moderate or high “fit” level on stress tests. A long-term study has shown that the death rate of thin but unfit people is twice that of these folks’. While being obese can certainly affect your quality of life, being in shape, concludes Blair, appears “to protect against early mortality no matter how much you weigh.”

So Get off Your Fat Duff.

For all the diet books, testimonials on Oprah, and general hand-wringing over obesity, there’s been relatively little said about exercise as a means of extending life. Regular workouts usually take off pounds, of course, but even if they don’t, they improve your heart health, strengthen your bones, help you sleep better, and boost your mood. As for what “exercise” means, exactly? Well, no free lunch here: You’ll need to get out and move at least thirty minutes five days a week, at a vigorous pace (using a heart-rate monitor, make sure you’re going fast enough to get your heart pumping at 60 to 80 percent of its maximum rate, which is calculated by subtracting your age from 220). Some obese people may need sixty or even ninety minutes a day to remain fit. “If you can walk briskly for thirty to forty minutes without feeling extremely breathless and fatigued, you probably have a reasonable level of fitness,” says Blair.

Vanity, Thy Name Is BMI.

So what if you look like an overstuffed armchair? It’s about being comfortable in your skin, says Blair: “Some of us will never be thin. I was short, fat, and bald when I started running, and after running nearly every day for more than thirty years, I am still short, fat, and bald.” A person’s health and longevity lie beyond BMI numbers, he adds. “People can be healthy and, according to some standards today, not look like it at all. That’s the wrong message. The key is an overall healthy lifestyle.”

Give Us This Day Our Daily Workout:
News from the fitness frontier.

Fortunately for all us office dwellers, Texas corporations are finally getting hip to the value of promoting fitness among workers. Take, for example, the new Radio Shack complex in Fort Worth. The 34-acre, seven-building campus not only has a special workout facility, but it also features a design that encourages constant leg use: The first thing employees see in the main foyer is not a bank of elevators but a glass-encased stairway, and, because different divisions are scattered among the buildings, they often walk between meetings twenty to thirty minutes a day. Says one administrative assistant: “Just since we opened last year, I’ve lost my saddlebags.” Not lucky enough to work at such a fitness-friendly campus? Contact your HR department to find out what exercise incentive programs your company does offer.