Whether it's more access to processed food or an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, many countries around the world have seen a rise in obesity levels over the last few decades. While diet is often promoted as the best way to lose weight, a new study from the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center (AHWC) suggests exercise is a more critical factor for healthy weight maintenance.
Many diet programs have been successful at helping people lose weight, but few have been able to help a lot of people over a long period of time. In fact, restrictive diet fads are famous for being unsustainable, with immediate weight loss often leading to weight gain in a see-saw like fashion. According to the study from AHWC, there is a very good reason for this, with successful weight-loss maintainers relying on physical activity rather than dietary changes to remain in energy balance.
According to Danielle Ostendorf, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at AHWC, "This study addresses the difficult question of why so many people struggle to keep weight off over a long period. By providing evidence that a group of successful weight-loss maintainers engages in high levels of physical activity to prevent weight regain - rather than chronically restricting their energy intake - is a step forward to clarifying the relationship between exercise and weight-loss maintenance."
In the study, the successful group included anyone who reduced their body weight by 13.5 kg over a period of 12 months, with other groups including a normal body weight group and an overweight/obesity group. While diet programs focus on the consumption of fewer calories, successful individuals were still able to consume calories as long as they burned them through exercise in order to maintain energy balance. The weight-loss maintainer group were burning more energy through physical activity and recording a significantly higher number of steps per day.
According to Victoria A. Catenacci, MD, a weight management physician and researcher at CU Anschutz Medical Campus, "Our findings suggest that this group of successful weight-loss maintainers are consuming a similar number of calories per day as individuals with overweight and obesity but appear to avoid weight regain by compensating for this with high levels of physical activity." While sticking to an exercise regime may seem difficult, restricting your diet over a long time period can be even harder.
While these findings somewhat contradict the common advice that weight loss is 75 percent diet and 25 percent exercise, the vast majority of scientific studies which have contributed to this rule of thumb measured short-term weight loss rather than sustained weight loss over a period of months or years. Even though it’s much easier to cut calories than it is to burn them off, focusing on exercise allows you to form healthy lifestyle habits, stimulate the growth of metabolic tissues, and set up a healthy long-term relationship with food and exercise based on maintenance rather than restriction.