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I’ve often discussed the role that build charts play in the underwriting of life insurance. From an insurance point of view it’s as simple as this, trim is good and overweight is bad. Trim gets the best rates and overweight doesn’t.

For the purpose of this discussion we are talking about overweight as defined by the body mass index (BMI). We are not talking about the difference between a healthy weight according to the BMI versus obesity according to the BMI. So the question is does fitness compensate for fatness (overweight). A recent Harvard publication sheds a little different light on this question than may have been considered by underwriters in the past. Having said that it’s also important to remember that life insurance companies truly can’t afford to unravel every subtle difference between one insured and another. More on that in a minute.

So, the question in a little more detail is, from a long term health perspective, is slim but not fit better than overweight but fit? Let’s define fit as someone who exercises 30 minutes a day even if it’s just moderate exercise such as walking. Remember again, we are not talking about obesity. Obesity and especially morbid obesity by the very nature of the amount of extra weight make fitness a difficult if not impossible task without weight loss.

The findings of a 1998 study of 22,000 men, cited in the Harvard article, found that fit really did trump fat to some degree. In other words being thin and out of shape wasn’t better than being overweight and in shape. Their findings were summed up like this, “After eight years of follow-up, 428 of the men had died. Those who were overweight but deemed physically fit by their performance on the treadmill test were half as likely to have died as men who were lean but not fit. What’s more, death rates were virtually the same among fit overweight men and fit lean men.”

So, back to the underwriting dilemma I referred to above. Even though it seems obvious that the level of fitness is just as important, if not more important, than weight, the problem comes in finding an inexpensive way to measure fitness or assume fitness in the underwriting process. In the study all of the men’s fitness was measured by their performance on a treadmill stress test. Insurance companies underwriting costs right now very seldom leave room for insurance company profit for 3-5 years. A treadmill stress test would more than quadruple the cost of the average life insurance exam effectively making it unprofitable to provide. If it doesn’t make a profit, on average, a company can’t do it. And for all of you who just booed the life insurance companies making a profit, remember that they are the companies that are going to be cutting check for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to your beneficiaries. You want them to be profitable.

Having said all of that, there is the occasional underwriter who can be swayed a rate class if evidence of fitness is provided by the proposed insured. If this attempt is made it generally needs to be with information from the person’s medical records, not from the manager of the gym they purport to go to. So, if your medical records happen to contain a recent treadmill stress test, bring it to your independent agent’s attention.

Bottom line. Being fit. Being in shape from a cardiovascular standpoint will trump weight if you are concerned about your own health and your own longevity. For practical purposes it would probably be prudent not to go into the purchasing of life insurance assuming that your fit and fat argument will win the day.