By Amanda Changuris
If you’re among the 34.4% of American adults who are overweight (and not obese), you’ve probably made at least a few attempts to lose weight. If you’ve been successful – great! But for many people, the struggle is long, difficult and disheartening.
A recent study out of the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health has good news for those who keep up with exercise, even if you don’t lose all of the extra pounds.
The study, led by Duck-chul Lee with the school’s Department of Exercise Science, looked at how a change in fitness or fatness impacts risk factors like hypertension, high cholesterol and metabolic syndrome (defined as a large waistline, high triglycerides, low HDL, high fasting blood sugar and high blood pressure).
“Although improving fitness and losing fatness is ideally the best combination, our study also shows that as long as individuals maintain their fitness and fatness levels, which is less challenging, they are not likely to be at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease risk factors,” Lee said.
Researchers studied 3,148 healthy adults over a six-year period, analyzing how their fitness and fatness changed over time and how that related to the development of heart-related conditions. Fitness was measured using a treadmill test while fatness was calculated using a skin fold test and body mass index.
The study results showed 752 participants developed hypertension, 426 developed metabolic syndrome and 597 developed high cholesterol.
The participants who maintained or improved their fitness level had a significantly lower risk of developing the identified risk factors when compared to other participants whose fitness level worsened. The results for both the maintained and improved groups were very similar; for example, participants who maintained their level of fitness saw a 24% decrease in risk for hypertension, those who improved their fitness level saw a 23% decrease.
On the other hand, participants who gained fat during the study had a significantly higher risk for developing all three risk factors (24% greater risk for hypertension, 52% for metabolic syndrome and 41% for higher cholesterol).
Researchers also found that maintaining or improving fitness lessened (but did not eliminate) the increased risk caused by gaining fat. Reducing body fat also appeared to counteract some of the increased risk associated with losing fitness.
In short, if you’re overweight, getting physically fit is an excellent way to improve your cardiac health. The best combination overall is to reduce body fat and increase fitness, but this study shows improving in either category is a big step in the right direction where heart health is concerned.
“These days, extensive attention has been given to obesity and weight loss. However, maintaining or improving fitness, primarily by engaging in regular physical activity, is also at least as important as weight loss for reducing cardiovascular disease in healthy adults,” Lee concluded.