Fitness can counter fatness, to an extent

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Losing weight is an extremely difficult task. But a new study provides some good news for individuals struggling to lose excess weight but trying to reduce their cardiovascular risk: Keeping fit, even in the absence of losing weight, still benefits cardiovascular health.

Researchers led by a University of South Carolina scientist analyzed data obtained from over 3,100 adults seen at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas. These patients were mostly in their 40s and did not have cardiovascular risk factors at the start of the study. Participants were tested for factors relevant to cardiovascular health, including cholesterol, blood pressure, body fat percentage, abdominal girth, and aerobic fitness (measured by treadmill tests). The patients then returned for two follow-up checkups over the course of at least six years.

The results, published in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology, demonstrated that most patients gained body fat over the course of the follow-up period. Yet many had also improved their cardiovascular fitness at the same time. Those participants who had both increased body fat and decreased fitness over the course of the study were 71 percent more likely to develop metabolic syndrome (a combination of cardiovascular risk factors) than those who had lost fat. But even if patients were unable to lose fat, if they managed to increase their fitness while gaining weight they were still at a 22 percent lower risk than those who gained weight and had lowered fitness.

So much attention gets focused on weight reduction, but reducing body fat is very difficult for most people, lead author Dr. Duck-Chul Lee comments. But this study demonstrates that for cardiovascular health, maintaining your fitness over your lifetime is just as important, and for most people is probably more achievable.

This is a promising result for people with excess weight, notes ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross. Many people will find it easier to exercise regularly and keep fit than to lose weight.

ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava agrees, and adds, While it is encouraging that improving fitness, independent of body fat or weight increases, can improve or at least maintain cardiovascular health, it s important to note that decreasing body fat adds to the decrease in risk. Both are involved.