Want to Maintain Your Weight? Get Moving.

The role of exercise in maintaining a healthy weight

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I've always loved to be active. As a kid, I enjoyed ice skating, tennis, and any recreational sport offered at school or camp. I was never a great athlete, but my enthusiasm for participating in so many different activities certainly made up for what I lacked in skill.

Elisa Zied
Elisa Zied
Although I remained somewhat active as a teen, it wasn't until I was a young, overweight adult that I began to exercise regularly and consistently. The exercise, coupled with eating smaller food portions and making better food choices in general, helped me lose weight. I'm proud to say I've maintained my weight at about 30 pounds less than what I weighed at my highest weight in high school.

Much of the scientific literature, including a 2009 position paper by the American College of Sports Medicine, finds that exercise does little to induce weight loss. So I took to Twitter and Facebook to ask my followers and friends whether exercise had ever affected their body weight. Although two people said that exercise had helped them lose weight, and one said exercise tended to make her gain weight, most said it helped them maintain weight. (One woman said it even gave her one less hour to eat, which was a good thing!) To my delight, many who responded shared the benefits they derived from exercise. Even if it didn't help them lose weight, exercise increased their energy, lifted their mood, and helped them feel more fit. I couldn't agree with them more!

No matter how exercise affects body weight, one thing is certain: not enough of us are doing it on a regular basis.

A 2011 survey by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that half of Americans said they exercised for at least 30 minutes on three or more of the last seven days. However, nearly three in 10 Americans said they did not exercise at all during that time frame.

Why the excuses? Perhaps some—especially those who have some weight to lose—feel like they have no time for exercise, or that it's just too hard, and they won't enjoy it. But a new study published in the American Journal of Physiology suggests that you need not subject yourself to too much sweat—or even tears!—to lose a little weight and gain the many benefits of exercise.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen Department of Biomedical Sciences randomly assigned 53 overweight men between the ages of 20 to 40 into one of three groups: a sedentary control group, a moderate-exercise group (in which they completed about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise), and a high-exercise group (in which they completed about 60 minutes of aerobic exercise). Each of the exercise subjects performed activities such as running or biking; on three of the days, they exercised at a higher intensity, and on other days, chose their own intensity. Subjects in all three test groups were asked to consume their usual diet and record their daily intake.

After 13 weeks, the control group experienced no weight changes. But the researchers were surprised when the moderate exercisers lost more weight (about seven pounds) than the intense exercisers, who lost about five pounds. The researchers found that when the high-exercise group wasn't exercising, they moved less than the moderate exercisers, who seemed invigorated by the shorter duration of exercise. Researchers also speculated that the intense exercisers likely increased their caloric intake (and even more than they recorded) to at least partially compensate for longer exercise sessions.

"While it's true that eating less can cause more rapid weight loss, that approach seldom works for long, and weight tends to be regained," says lead researcher Mads Rosenkilde, who notes that the study was relatively short and results cannot be generalized. "It's far easier to stick with 30 minutes a day of exercise than with restricting calorie intake," he adds. Furthermore, emerging research highlighted in a recent article in the Journal of Obesity suggests that physical activity plays a key role in regulating body weight.

So if you're trying to lose weight, consuming a nutritious diet with a few less calories can help, of course. But whether you do that or not, it's wise to heed the advice of James O. Hill, executive director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado. Get your exercise, Hill says, especially because of its evident role in long-term, weight-loss maintenance. As he tells his patients, "Unless you are prepared to make permanent and substantial increases in physical activity" as part of any overall weight-loss strategy, "you are wasting your time with weight loss." And who has time for that?

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is the founder and president of Zied Health Communications, LLC, based in New York City. She's an award-winning registered dietitian and author of three books including Nutrition At Your Fingertips. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, Zied inspires others to make more healthful food choices and find enjoyable ways to "move it or lose it" through writing, public speaking, and media appearances. You can connect with her on twitter (@elisazied) and through her new Stressipes forum on her website: www.elisazied.com.