by Ian Yarett
People who hate big thighs may have to take back the terrible things they’ve been saying about them. According to a study appearing today in the British Medical Journal, folks with skinny thighs may be at greater risk of heart disease and premature death than their chunkier brethren.
Experts say the results are preliminary and remain to be validated by further study, yet this research is intriguing. “We’re all looking for ways to get more precision, to find other markers, other descriptors that really help identify those at greatest risk,” says Dr. Clyde Yancy, president of the American Heart Association and medical director of the Heart and Vascular Institute at Baylor University Medical Center.
The study looked at about 2,800 initially healthy Danish people, half men and half women. Researchers measured thigh and waist circumference as well as weight and height (used to calculate body mass index), then tracked the health of the subjects over the next 12.5 years.
After accounting for known risk factors like BMI, blood pressure, smoking, alcohol, physical activity, cholesterol, and blood triglycerides, they ran statistical models to determine whether thigh circumference helped to further explain which people survived.
The researchers found that thigh size was an independent predictor of heart disease and early mortality, for men and women. People with thigh circumferences lower than 60 cm (23.6 inches) had an increased risk of cardiac disease.
According to Dr. Berit Heitmann, lead author of the study and research director at the Institute of Preventive Medicine in Copenhagen, the observed benefit of thicker thighs might be due to the health benefits of muscle and/or fat located in the lower body. Earlier studies have indicated that lower-body muscle may be important for insulin sensitivity, and that lower-body fat may produce anti-inflammatory, hormonelike substances. Although this hasn’t been confirmed, it could have some interesting implications if it proves true, since it is possible to increase lower-body muscle with targeted exercise.
It’s important to note that this research applies to groups and may seem to overemphasize the risk to the individual. “Like with body mass index, you have to look at the individual as well,” says Heitmann. “So if you have somebody who is [shorter] or something, obviously you would expect them to have a smaller thigh size than you would somebody who is [taller].” In other words: the 60 cm dividing line is an average that doesn't take into account body proportions, so don't be a slave to the tape measure. (A good rule in any case.)
Much more work remains to be done. The results must be reproducible in other populations (only Danes have been studied so far), and larger studies need to be conducted. As Dr. Ian Scott points out in an editorial published alongside the study, it remains to be seen whether the association between skinny thighs and heart disease allows doctors to assess risk any more accurately than they already can.
“[Thigh measurement] is provocative, but it’s not a game-changer,” Yancy says. “It doesn’t take away from the tried-and-true measures that really have been most helpful and most predictive of the risk of heart disease.”
by Ian Yarett