To Curb Obesity Risks, Researchers Call for Fitness Over Weight Loss

Women working out

Key Takeaways

  • A research review suggests that prompting more activity instead of focusing on weight loss could address obesity in better ways.
  • One of the biggest dangers of a weight-loss focus is weight cycling, which has been shown to have considerable health risks.
  • Researchers noted it doesn’t take much extra activity to make a difference for better health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), adult obesity in the United States continues to climb steadily, despite greater awareness about the issue. In the last two decades, prevalence has increased from 30% to 42%, the CDC reports, bringing with it obesity-related conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancers.

While the emphasis on weight loss has risen in tandem with the obesity epidemic, a recent research review in iScience suggests that is the wrong approach. Looking at studies examining mortality risk reduction associated with weight loss compared to physical activity, they found mortality risk was lower with the latter.

This implies that the prevailing focus should be on getting people more active instead of dieting, says study co-author Glenn Gaesser, PhD, in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University.

“Health benefits of exercise are largely independent of weight loss,” Dr. Gaesser says. “So, if your primary motivation is to improve your health, it is best to focus on becoming more physically active rather than on some specific weight-loss goal.”

Dropping the Yo-Yo

One of the most important aspects of pivoting away from a weight-loss focus is reducing the amount of weight cycling, also called yo-yo dieting, particularly through trendy diets. Dr. Gaesser notes that it is very common for people to get stuck in a lose-gain-lose cycle, but research indicates that process is more dangerous to health than simply being overweight or even having obesity.

Brooke Aggarwal, EdD

We think it’s possible that every time the weight is regained, cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose nudge higher, above the baseline level.

— Brooke Aggarwal, EdD

It is especially tough on the heart, according to Brooke Aggarwal, EdD, assistant professor of medical sciences in the division of cardiology at Columbia University Medical Center.

“We think it’s possible that every time the weight is regained, cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose nudge higher, above the baseline level,” she says.

Also, the weight that is lost is usually a blend of fat and some lean muscle tissue, but the weight that is regained is all fat, Aggarwal adds. With enough revolutions on the yo-yo, the amount of fat added would be much higher than if someone was overweight and stayed that way.

“This fat may be preferentially deposited in the abdomen, and abdominal fat has been strongly associated with risk for cardiovascular disease,” she says.

Different Perspective

It also may be helpful to adopt what’s called a “weight-neutral” approach, adds Dr. Gaesser. When someone becomes more physically active, that person’s body weight may decrease, but oftentimes does not change, he says.

Glenn Gaesser, PhD

With a weight-neutral approach, health benefits are not tightly linked to weight loss as a measure of success.

— Glenn Gaesser, PhD

“Sometimes, bodyweight actually increases as a result of becoming more physically active, and this is not just due to increases in lean body mass but an actual increase in body fat," Dr. Gaesser says. "Consequently, this can be frustrating.”

That can also cause people to quit a fitness program, he says, and lose all the benefits of exercise, which include better heart and respiratory function, less risk of depression and anxiety, and stronger bones and muscles. Even their blood sugar regulation, hormone balance, and sleep quality can be impacted when they quit exercising.

“With a weight-neutral approach, health benefits are not tightly linked to weight loss as a measure of success,” he says. “Instead, the primary outcome is improving health and reducing risks associated with obesity.”

Little Goes a Long Way

Another important factor, Dr. Gaesser adds, is that the benefits of exercise are dose-dependent, which means the more you do, the greater the health advantages.

Although current exercise recommendations call for 150 minutes weekly of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, you do not need that much to start seeing benefits if you are just beginning to exercise, he says.

“Just 2 minutes of moderate-to-brisk walking every hour can improve blood sugar, for example,” he adds. “Just reducing the amount of time a person spends sitting each day is a good start and will come with some health benefits. But increasing physical activity to improve fitness is even better.”

What This Means For You

For better health benefits, focusing on fitness instead of weight loss may be the best strategy, researchers suggest, especially if it breaks the lose-gain-lose cycle many people experience. If you are interested in starting a new exercise regimen, talk to a healthcare provider first.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adult obesity facts.

  2. Gaesser GA, Angadi SS. Obesity treatment: Weight loss versus increasing fitness and physical activity for reducing health risksiScience. Published online September 2021:102995. doi:10.1016/j.isci.2021.102995

  3. Montani J-P, Schutz Y, Dulloo AG. Dieting and weight cycling as risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases: Who is really at risk?. Obes Rev. 2015;16(Suppl 1):7-18. doi:10.1111/obr.12251

  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Benefits of exercise.

  5. American Heart Association. Recommendations for physical activity in adults and kids.

By Elizabeth Millard, CPT, RYT
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.