12/02/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
Steven Blair could be a poster child for healthy living. He watches what he eats—heavy on fruits, veggies and whole grains—and runs four miles a day. His doctor says he's fit as a fiddle. But since Blair is 5'4" tall and weighs 195 lbs., the National Institutes of Health's Body Mass Index (BMI) has a different description for him: obese.
Fat chance, says Blair, who is devoting his career to proving that health can't be measured by getting on a scale. As director of research at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Blair has studied more than 35,000 subjects to determine how body composition and fitness affect mortality rates. His findings? "Overweight" people who exercise regularly often live longer than "normal weight" people who do not. In other words, you can be fat and fit. "Would I rather be Mel Gibson? Sure," says Blair, 63. "But we need to change people's perceptions of being obese."
Blair's work—which assesses fitness by measuring subjects' treadmill performances—carries weight with his colleagues. "Steve is brilliant and has common sense," says Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "His studies are important because they are an objective measure of fitness."
Growing up in north Kansas, Blair "was always short and stocky," he says, but the calories he burned working on his family's farm kept obesity at bay. He started gaining in the '80s after scaling back his daily 10-mile runs. In 1995, more than 30 lbs. heavier, Blair, who has a Ph.D. in physical education and has worked in epidemiology at the Cooper Institute since 1980, began to focus on fat-and-fitness research. Next up for the weight crusader, who lives in Dallas with wife Jane, 62, a school psychologist, is a study on the health effects of abdominal girth. "I'm not saying eat, drink, be merry and get as fat as you want," he says. "But at some point we have to say, 'Get a life,' instead of obsessing about every ounce."