What Defines an Unhealthy Weight? What Is Too Fat?

I recently put up this article and had a great conversation about the issue of weight bias, sizeism, and more on the Fitcast – Pulse. I encourage you to download and check out the new episodes. I admit I am close to hitting my limit talking on this issue, but I was asked an important question that I’d like to respond to before I close on it publicly.

What Defines an Unhealthy Weight? What Is Too Fat?

The concept of being unhealthy is a bit subjective and relies on an assortment of factors. The type of lifestyle you live affects your level of health in positive and negative ways. For example, if you are a competitive marathon runner, you may be more prone to problems and injury if you are over 22% body fat as a female or 17% body fat as a male. The extra weight on impact is important to consider for your long term athletic goals. The more intense your athletic activities are, the healthier it is for your body, bones, and joints to maintain a lower body fat level.

On the flip side, if you are simply trying to maintain a generally healthy disposition, weekly exercise habits, and a good diet—you can get away with having higher body fat levels.

To keep it simple, being healthy would include avoiding illness and problems related to being overweight. An additional factor would be diseases that are generally avoidable. For example, type 2 diabetes is avoidable for most people. Obesity and metabolic syndrome is generally avoidable, contrary to what you have been told. Does that mean you are a bad person if you have these issues? Are you going to go to fat person hell? No. I am not saying that, what I am saying is being healthy is usually defined as not having to deal with these problems.

I have said this often but it’s worth repeating: bad things need food to grow. There is an extreme amount of research available about how excess caloric consumption on large levels impacts everything from cancer to heart attacks. Not eating an excess of food is the easiest way to avoid health problems. Again, this isn’t about being a size 0. It’s about common sense and treating your body like you give a damn about it. Life is hard enough. We all are going to die one day, and at a point, our bodies just stop working and that is it. Just trying not to piss it off or egg it on is a pretty good idea.

If you don’t want your grill to rust, cover it when it is raining. Get me?

What Is Enough Exercise for Health?

In the forums recently, a member asked how much exercise you have to do in order to maintain general health. I provided the following “conversation” to illustrate the point I want to make. Again, this is for general health, not athletics or even specific body composition.

Question: Why do we exercise?
Answer: Because we don’t move.

Question: But what if we move, walk, stretch, and play throughout the day?
Answer: That’s exercise.

Question: But I’m supposed to get 60 minutes of exercise every day?
Answer: Do you walk, stretch, play, cook, walk, shop, and move more than 60 minutes each day?
Question: Yes.
Answer: That’s exercise.

Question: But what if I said no?
Answer: Then you would need to do those things or more formal exercise on a daily basis.

Question: But don’t I need weighted exercise?
Answer: Yes, specific training is important and does have it’s place, but what most people need can be achieved with bodyweight movements. For other things, you can train once or twice a week with specific resistance and be fine.

Question: What would that look like?
Answer: A full body lifting/resistance program. For someone who has little training experience, do step ups, deadlifts, back rows, neutral shoulder presses, neutral chest presses. 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps. Keep progressing in each workout. The weight pressure of an external load is key here. Congratulations, it’s a workout. It will protect your bones, and you can do it once a week if the rest of the time you are doing mobility work, bodyweight training, etc.

Question: But, I have to do that other stuff 6 times a week, right?
Answer: No. You can do 1 full body and 2 bodyweight training sessions and call it a week. But I would encourage daily walking and regular mobility/stretching, especially if you are involved in repetitive movements or are still/seated for extended periods of time. It doesn’t have to be formal; you can do it throughout the day.

Question: Are you saying that’s it? No crazy cardio? No HIIT? No metabolic training? No 5-6x a week plus cardio, plus warm up…
Answer: I am in favor of adding a little cardio at the end of your training sessions. And unless you have specific rehab issues (and need to see a PT), you should be fine, healthy, get decent burn, and go about living life.

So, what does a generally healthy exercise set-up look like?

  • Get at least 60 minutes of activity everyday at a rate higher than 1.5 calories per minute.
  • Do a formal resistance exercise program 3 times a week. Make sure to use a heavy external weight load in at least one of those training sessions.
  • Make time during your training for a 15-20 minute cardiovascular session. You can also do this at a separate time if preferred.
  • Do daily mobility/stretching.

That’s it. You can keep it to 3 days of specific and formal training each week for general health. Anything else is a bonus for athletics, specifically to help aid weight loss, rehab, etc. The above is bare bones and everyone should be doing that at minimum.

A Lighter Car Just Drives Better

Bonus Question: Why would being over 30% body fat as a female or 25% body fat as a male cause problems if I was doing these things?

Answer: It may not, but the more body fat you carry, the more weight you carry. This means when you walk, move, exercise, etc. it puts extra strain on your body. It can affect your balance, alignment, and how you respond to physical activity. It can lead to unnecessary compensations. There are more reasons to be lean than vanity. Efficiency is a beautiful thing in the human body. That, above all, should be celebrated.

Cars are used often to relate to the human body. Fuel = food and things like that. I realize it is a bit done, but allow me one more.

Here is a quick lesson about cars. The lighter they are, the faster they go. If you are a car enthusiast for the purpose of racing or touring, or if you are just pretending you are on Top Gear, you know that decreasing the weight of a vehicle allows for better speed. It isn’t the only factor, of course; a car with a lot of horsepower but poor suspension means it will drive great in a straight line but can’t hold a corner to save its life.

Before I start my rant on a subject in which I’m not technically an expert, let me get to my point which is light equals efficiency in movement and energy relay. Since our bodies and lives are nothing but energy relay, light equals better. Understand by light, I mean a healthy level of light. I don’t mean anorexics have more fun or that a stripped car is the way to go. Curves are good, in bodies and on cars.

That sums up my view, my simplistic view, on what defines healthy. I don’t think this is a topic for a lot of study or argument. It shouldn’t be anyway. It’s a pretty cut and dry issue if you ask me. And since you did, that’s my opinion.


  1. Kyle
    May 11, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Great read Leigh. I really like your no bs way of how you explained how much exercise people need to be healthy. I agree with you. I think people have this twisted mentality that you need to spends hours and hours per week just to stay in shape. The reality is; you need to eat properly, train with weights to preserve muscle, and get some low intensity cardio in. If someone does this consistently, they will have no problem with being overweight and unhealthy (unless they have some condition which is ou of their control, which is rarer than most are lead to believe). Keep up the good work!

  2. Jodi
    May 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Wow, it’s like you read my mind! I was even going to write in with a question for the podcast about this. I recently got down to “goal weight” for a photo shoot, but “goal” for me is a bit higher than what I feel your typical listenership is happy with. 5 foot 4 or 5, 140 – I’m a pinup model, I like being curvy. But since I’ve gotten down to this weight I wasn’t sure how much exercise I needed just to be healthy. My fat is covering the muscles, so I’m not looking for ripped. This was the perfect answer to the question I hadn’t asked yet.

  3. Daniel
    May 13, 2011 at 1:22 am

    Nice article.

    Talking about cars, they need the right fuel. You can’t put diesel in a car that’s meants for gasoline. Quality of nutrition is also important.

  4. Bree
    May 13, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    This is a great article.

    In light of my recent foray into 1/2 marathon racing, I will say that before I dropped body fat, running was a lot harder. For me anecdotally at least, being lighter has been an advantage. But….I didn’t use running to lose the weight. It was through diet. There is no way I would be able to keep up the running I do now at the calorie levels I was eating at while trying to lose fat.

    I think so many people get caught up in the numbers game of x amount of minutes of cardio a day for weight loss and heart health, and slave away doing something they don’t enjoy.

  5. Jason Hodges
    May 17, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    I think a recurrent problem with the general public is that they think that the amount of exercise needed to be healthy will automatically change their body composition. That goal requires more exercise.

  6. Fredrik Gyllensten
    May 19, 2011 at 2:55 am

    Great article, Leigh! 🙂

  7. Mitchell - Home Fitness Manual
    August 22, 2011 at 2:22 am


    Good topic of discussion.

    The golden rules to follow:

    #1. Food is fuel! (But, it’s not always treated as such.) Calories will make or break your diet. However, micronutrients: the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals will aid in maintaining your weight levels.

    #2. Live an active lifestyle and sleep well! The average person who works a desk job is carrying upwards of 20% of fat on their bodies. This mixed with a decrease in sleep quantity and/or quality has been shown to have a link in affecting metabolism and appetite cravings.

    Diet and exercise should be the core of your fitness plans, yet living a well-rounded existence will better your chances for an efficient body.


  8. […] the more you incorporate these changes in your life, the less you will be complaining about your unhealthy weight and low energy because you will be too busy rock climbing, cycling, swimming at the beach and […]

  9. Kristen Chan
    February 23, 2016 at 2:50 am

    Yes, Leigh, you couldn’t have said better! What we have been told of dieting and exercising way too much is rather, in fact, pushing our limits that forcing weight loss puts a strain on our body which in turn can be damaging to our overall health; leading to disease and added stress to our bodies

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