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Prioritizing fitness over weight loss is best for obesity-related health conditions, researchers say

Experts say that when consumers focus too much on the number on the scale, they may not get the best long-term results

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As more and more consumers struggle with obesity, a new study explored the best ways to go about leading a healthier lifestyle. 

The findings, published in the journal iScience, showed that weight loss shouldn’t be the main focus for consumers dealing with obesity-related health conditions, like diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Instead, the researchers recommend adopting healthy habits and prioritizing fitness over losing weight. 

“We would like people to know that fat can be fit, and that fit and healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes,” said a co-author of the study, Glenn Gaesser, a professor at the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. “We realize that in a weight-obsessed culture, it may be challenging for programs that are not focused on weight loss to gain traction. We’re not necessarily against weight loss; we just think that it shouldn’t be the primary criterion for judging the success of a lifestyle intervention program.” 

Being healthier leads to better outcomes

The researchers analyzed data from previous studies that looked at how a focus on losing weight versus a focus on exercising and eating healthy impacted long-term health and mortality. They learned that consumers’ long-term health outcomes were better when they prioritized fitness and adopting healthy habits, as opposed to just losing weight. 

In looking at both cardiovascular disease and mortality risk, the authors found eating healthy foods and regularly exercising was associated with the most health-related improvements. The risks for both were considerably lower when participants prioritized sticking to a healthy routine as opposed to losing a certain amount of weight. 

The researchers explained that when consumers are focused on the number on the scale, they often end up in a constant cycle of trying to lose weight. The result is a lot of back and forth between healthy and unhealthy patterns. 

The researchers recommend adopting a weight-neutral approach. When the focus is on staying healthy, consumers are more likely to stick to those habits and achieve better long-term health outcomes, they say. 

“This is especially important when you consider the physiological realities of obesity,” said co-author Siddhartha Angadi, an assistant professor at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. “Body weight is a highly heritable trait, and weight loss is associated with substantial metabolic alterations that ultimately thwart weight loss maintenance.” 

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