Benefits of Exercise | Focus on Fitness Gains vs. Weight Loss for Health

  • There should be a larger focus on fitness for health rather than weight loss or management, according to a recent research review.
  • Gaining and losing weight repeatedly has been associated with many adverse health outcomes—largely heart-related—whereas fitness gains can prevent these types of issues.

    Over the past 40 years, global obesity rates have tripled, and that’s led to an intensifying focus on weight loss, according to a recent research review in the journal iScience. But despite the breadth of products, services, and strategies—a Google search on “weight loss” returns 16 billion results—obesity continues to climb. So, what’s the disconnect?

    Researchers suggest the advice is wrong. Rather than nudging people toward losing weight, they believe a pivot toward promoting fitness—even over changing dietary choices—would have the greatest effect.

    Join Runner’s World+ today to stay on top of the latest health and running news!

    To reach that conclusion, researchers looked at studies examining mortality risk reduction associated with weight loss compared to physical activity, and found the risk was lower with the latter. But in addition to longer life, the change in perspective is likely to be especially valuable for breaking free of weight cycling (also called yo-yo dieting), according to study co-author Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D., a professor of exercise physiology in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University.

    Gaining and losing weight repeatedly has been associated with many adverse health outcomes, he told Runner’s World. Most notably, previous research has shown weight cycling to be tough on cardiovascular health, and possibly be even worse than the health issues that can come with being overweight or obese.

    Gaesser suggested a “weight neutral” approach that focuses on fitness for health rather than weight loss or management.

    “This eliminates weight loss from the equation when it comes to improving health,” he said. “When someone becomes more physically active, that person’s body weight may decrease but often does not change. 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.”

    Another important factor, he added, is that the benefits of exercise are dose dependent, which means the more you do, the greater the health advantages. But that said, it doesn’t take much to see improvements in areas like blood sugar control and blood pressure, said Gaesser.

    “We have data showing that just two minutes of moderate-to-brisk walking every hour can improve blood sugar, for example,” he said. “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, with a focus on moderate-to-vigorous-intensity exercise.”

    That means to shift away from weight cycling, build more activity—like running—into your existing routine, and especially shift your focus from weight loss to fitness gains, he suggested. As the current research review concludes, it could even help you live longer.

    This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at