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Which Is More Important – Exercise or Weight Loss?

By Jiri Kaloc

Is it more important to stay physically active and fit – or slim down to your ideal weight? A new study set out to compare the effects of extra bodyweight and physical activity on your health. Let’s see what it means for you.

Previous research suggests that being fit might mitigate the negative effects of excess body weight on heart health. “This has led to controversial proposals for health policies to prioritise physical activity and fitness above weight loss. Our study sought to clarify the links between activity, body weight, and heart health,” said study author Dr Alejandro Lucia of the European University, Madrid, Spain.

Running in a park
Good adherence to a healthy diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. © Profimedia

Weight, activity, and heart health measured

Researchers used data from 527,662 working adults from Spain, the average age of participants was 42 years and 32% were women. They used the body mass index (BMI) to evaluate body weight. Physical activity was compared to the 150 minutes of activity per week that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends. And cardiovascular health was determined by three major risk factors: diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

There were three categories based on weight:

• Normal weight (BMI 20-24,9) – 42% of participants
• Overweight (BMI 25-29.9) – 41% of participants
• Obese with (BMI 30 or more) – 18% of participants

And three categories based on activity level:

• Regularly active, doing the WHO minimum or more – 24% of participants
• Insufficiently active, doing less than the WHO minimum – 12% of participants
• Inactive, no exercise – 64% of participants

The more physical activity, the better. © Profimedia

Everyone should be physically active

The researchers found that any activity, whether it met the WHO minimum or not, was linked with a lower likelihood of diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol compared to no exercise at all. And this was true for all three bodyweight groups.
“This tells us that everyone, irrespective of their body weight, should be physically active to safeguard their health. At all weights, the odds of diabetes and hypertension decreased as physical activity rose. More activity is better, so walking 30 minutes per day is better than walking 15 minutes a day,” Dr Alejandro Lucia said.

Overweight and obese at greater risk even if exercising

Unfortunately, this study presented another more troubling finding. Physically active obese people were approximately two times as likely to have high cholesterol, four times more likely to have diabetes, and five times more likely to have high blood pressure when compared to inactive individuals.

Empty gym
“The prevalence of overweight and obesity has reached pandemic proportions, and people with these conditions present with an increased cardiometabolic risk.” © Profimedia

“Exercise does not seem to compensate for the negative effects of excess weight. This finding was also observed overall in both men and women when they were analysed separately,” said Dr Lucia.

Fighting obesity and inactivity is equally important

“This was the first nationwide analysis to show that being regularly active is not likely to eliminate the detrimental health effects of excess body fat. Our findings refute the notion that a physically active lifestyle can completely negate the deleterious effects of overweight and obesity. Fighting obesity and inactivity is equally important. It should be a joint battle. Weight loss should remain a primary target for health policies together with promoting active lifestyles,” Dr Lucia concludes.