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Study: exercise is better than weight loss to improve long-term health

Recent research says a weight-neutral approach to physical activity is better for our health

When a doctor prescribes exercise to a patient, it’s usually with the goal of losing weight to improve their health. But what if we stopped worrying about the number on the scale and just focused on the benefits of physical activity? A recent study compared the health benefits of weight loss with those of exercise and determined that while both can improve health, a “weight-neutral” approach to exercise is better for you than trying to shed pounds.

The researchers decided to ask the question “should weight loss be the primary focus of obesity treatment?” While this may sound counterintuitive, they note that the majority of people who attempt to lose weight end up falling into a futile cycle of weight loss and gain, which can be even worse for your health than being overweight. “In fact, chronic weight cycling is the norm for millions of adults and is likely to remain so for as long as weight loss persists as the cornerstone of obesity treatment,” the researchers say.

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Instead, they propose a weight-neutral approach to treating obesity-related health conditions, which they say can be just as effective, if not more effective, at improving the health of individuals. The reason for this, they explain, is that the majority of obesity-related health issues are not because of a person’s weight per se, but because of a lack of physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness. During their review, they point to several studies showing that increasing physical activity levels is consistently associated with a greater reduction in risk for mortality and cardiovascular disease when compared with weight loss. In addition, regular exercise has been shown to improve major markers of cardiometabolic health, independent of weight loss.

The bottom line

A quick glance at the numbers is all it takes to see that over the last 40 years, our attempts to lose weight to improve our health have fallen flat. The benefits of regular exercise, on the other hand, are undeniable — regardless of your shape or size.

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This research shows that our weight has far less to do with our actual health than we originally thought, so perhaps it’s time to stop focusing so much on the numbers on the scale. Exercising to lose weight often leads to unhealthy habits like underfuelling and restrictive diets, which are unsustainable and often lead to injuries. A better approach, if you’re hoping to improve your health, is to allow your weight to be what it will be, and instead focus on getting regular physical activity.