Exercise should beat diet for obese people trying to lose weight and live longer, experts have said, giving added credence to the “fat but fit” approach to a healthy life.
Researchers found that when it comes to getting healthy and cutting the risk of dying early, doing more exercise and improving fitness was more effective than merely shedding kilos.
Multiple studies over 40 years have shown obesity continues to rise despite people trying to lose weight, said Prof Glenn Gaesser, from Arizona State University, and associate professor Siddhartha Angadi, from the University of Virginia.
Applying a “weight-neutral” approach to the treatment of health issues caused by obesity would also cut the health risks associated with yo-yo dieting, they said.
“We would like people to know that fat can be fit, and that fit and healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes,” Prof Gaesser said.
“We realise that in a weight-obsessed culture, it may be challenging for programmes that are not focused on weight loss to gain traction.
“We're not necessarily against weight loss; we merely think that it shouldn't be the primary criterion for judging the success of a lifestyle intervention programme.”
Writing in the journal iScience, they said “a weight-centric approach to obesity treatment and prevention has been largely ineffective”.
“Repeated weight loss efforts may contribute to weight gain, and is undoubtedly associated with the high prevalence of weight cycling (yo-yo dieting), which is associated with significant health risks,” they wrote.
They highlighted studies suggesting that exercise was better for a longer life than merely losing weight.
They argued that “many obesity-related health conditions are more likely attributable to low physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness rather than obesity per se".
“Epidemiological studies show that cardiorespiratory fitness and physical activity significantly attenuate, and sometimes eliminate, the increased mortality risk associated with obesity,” they said.
Studies have found that “increasing physical activity or cardiorespiratory fitness is consistently associated with greater reduction in risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality than intentional weight loss".
However, the researchers said that adopting a weight-neutral approach “does not mean that weight loss should be categorically discouraged”, especially when so many people want to shed the kilos.
“Shifting the focus away from weight loss as the primary goal, and instead focusing on increasing physical activity to improve cardiorespiratory fitness, may be prudent for treating obesity-related health conditions,” they said.