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Exercise—Not This Diet Change—May Help You Live Longer, New Study Suggests

When it comes to reducing obesity risks, these researchers found it’s movement that matters.
FACT CHECKED BY Cheyenne Buckingham

Significant emphasis has gone into weight loss for reducing obesity risks and its potentially life-shortening impacts, but a recent research review in the journal iScience suggests that when it comes to living longer, exercise may matter more.

Looking at a breadth of research over the past 10 years that examined early mortality risk associated with weight loss as well as physical activity, they found the benefits titled more distinctly toward the latter.

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They concluded that the type of cardiovascular and metabolic risk factors that have been linked to a shorter life can be improved with exercise, even when there's no weight loss as a result. That led them to conclude that weight loss actually shouldn't be the primary focus of obesity treatment. Instead, it's better to take a "weight neutral" approach that takes weight out of the equation, according to lead researcher Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D., in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University.


"When someone becomes more physically active, that person's body weight may decrease but often does not change, and sometimes can even increase," he says. "This can be frustrating if the goal is weight loss. If you change the focus to physical activity as a way to be healthy, this may take that frustration away."

He adds that another benefit could be convincing people to drop trendy diets that cause weight loss and regain in a yo-yo dieting cycle. That's been shown to have considerable negative effects, he notes, especially on heart health.

Another pivot, he and other researchers added, is to stop associating body mass index (BMI) with mortality risk. He says the relationship isn't as clear-cut as it's been made out to be, and research over the past decade shows mixed results. In fact, some studies have noted that a BMI in the "overweight" range is associated with a lower risk compared to people in the "underweight" category.

"This is particularly true among older adults, with the lowest mortality typically observed in the BMI range considered overweight," says Gaesser. What is clear, he adds, is that exercise seems to be highly preventative for people of any age and weight.

"The relationship is dose-dependent, which means the more exercise you get, the lower your health risks become," he notes. "But we have data showing just two minutes of moderate-to-brisk walking every hour can improve blood sugar, for example. Just reducing the amount of time spent sitting each day is a good start."

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Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness, and nutrition. Read more about Elizabeth
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