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Keeping Weight Off Takes More Exercise Than You Think

Let's face it: losing weight requires hard work, and keeping it off can be even harder. If you've lost weight and want to keep it off, that oft-recommended 30 minutes of physical activity mustered a few days a week just ain't going to do the trick.

New research published in the current Archives of Internal Medicine confirms that women who want to sustain substantial weight loss need 55 minutes of dedicated physical activity five days a week on top of their normal daily activities to keep weight from creeping back.

That's actually in keeping with current weight-loss maintenance guidelines: the federal government's "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005" (the document is updated every five years) recommends 60 to 90 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity daily -- without overeating -- to sustain weight loss.

In the new study, John Jakicic, associate professor and chair of the department of health and physical activity at the University of Pittsburgh, placed 201 overweight and obese women who were enrolled in a weight-loss clinic into four groups with different combinations of physical activity amount (some burning 1,000 calories a week, others burning 2,000, depending on how much they weighed at the start of the study) and intensity (moderate versus vigorous).

All were told to eat between 1,200 and 1,500 calories per day. Participants attended group meetings to talk about strategies for changing their eating and exercise habits. The intervention team checked in with telephone calls throughout the two-year study period.

The women were given treadmills to use at home (nice!); their other daily physical activities (such as walking from the bus stop to the office, climbing stairs, and the like) were taken into account.

Things looked good for women in all four groups after six months: Participants had lost an average of 8 percent to 10 percent of their original weight. But at the end of two years, most had put pounds back on: On average, the women in all four groups weighed only 5 percent less than they had when they started.

But about a quarter of the women managed to lose 10 percent of their weight and keep it off. These women had taken part in more of those telephone calls, adopted more of the new eating behaviors aimed at weight control, and eaten less fat than the women who didn't keep the weight off. They also moved around lots more, exercising for an average of 275 minutes a week, or 55 minutes for each of 5 days.

55 minutes may sound like a lot of activity to those who have trouble hoisting themselves off the couch for any minutes, any days per week. But for those of us who have struggled to combat chub-creep even when we exercise a lot, every single day, these findings come as no surprise.

Jakicic says that the recommendation for 30 minutes of physical activity several days a week is aimed at general health, not at weight loss or maintenance. He says this study's findings are right in line with the government's recommendations, but they don't sound as daunting. "We're saying 'Do your normal lifestyle activities plus 55 minutes of purposeful activity,'" he explains. "We're giving people credit for the activities they do anyway." It still adds up to 80 or 90 minutes, he says, "but we're not selling it as 90 minutes" so as not to scare people off.

(By the way, Jakicic admits he's "not a firm believer" in the value of housework as a weight-loss or -maintenance activity. "You should clean your house anyway," he says. Better to step up your daily walking or biking routine, he suggests.)

An accompanying editorial notes that the study shows it's hard to maintain a program of 55 minutes' activity a day, even when someone gives you a treadmill and calls you every so often to remind you to use it. The editorial, written by Warren Thompson of the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and James Levine, designer of the Walkstation, further observes that the study's requisite amount of physical activity "can be achieved through a combination of strategies, including increased formal exercise, a modified work and school environment that allows for movement while working and learning, and a modified home environment with less television and more movement. Further research in sustainability of activity is urgently needed if we are to solve the obesity epidemic."

Have you lost weight -- and kept it off? How long do you need to stay on the treadmill (or whatever) for it to make a difference in keeping weight gain at bay? And what kinds of daily lifestyle activities do you think are most effective at keeping you trim?

Coming tomorrow: In light of my story in today's health section about soy's potential effect on men's sperm concentrations, we're going to take a close look at soy products' health benefits and risks.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  July 29, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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Next: Is Soy Safe -- or Scary?


Lost about 35 lbs over three years or so. Was not overweight based on BMI to begin with, but wanted to get back to college weight. To keep it off? about 1300 calories/day plus 4 days/week of 35 minutes strenuous exercise. (plus regular walking to Metro, 1.5 miles daily round trip, plus Pilates once a week). It ain't easy, people!

Posted by: anon | July 29, 2008 8:03 AM | Report abuse

I lost 15 lbs this year, combining running and eating well. A foot injury kept me sidelined for two months, and I got back on the scale this week and was stunned to see all the weight back on. So bummed! I couldn't exercise at all (and I did miss it). Looking back I probably needed to cut the calories even more to make up for not running.

Back on the treadmill this week.

Posted by: mdem | July 29, 2008 8:17 AM | Report abuse

Keeping a healthy weight is the important thing, looking good is only the manifastation of being healthy. Eat healthy and exercise by cleaning your house, riding your bike to work/store and always use the stairs.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 29, 2008 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Get dysentery...great way to lose weight initially. Then I kept it off with excercise. Lost 30 pounds in 4 months

Posted by: CSM | July 29, 2008 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I lost a little over 30 pounds 6 years ago and have maintained my weight ever since. I am also part of the "older" crowd who generally have more trouble keeping weight off. I lost it and have kept it off, almost exclusively, by controlling my diet. Lots of milk, lowfat yogurt, fruit. Very modest amounts of meat and high fat foods. I do allow myself chocolate regularly, but in very modest quantities. My exercise consists of cycling a whopping 15 minutes a day, in addition to regular activities. Very importantly, I weigh myself at least every other day, so that I can adjust my caloric intake for any weight gain before it becomes a real problem. It does work, you just have to keep at it!

Posted by: Anonymous | July 29, 2008 12:41 PM | Report abuse

It's good when you can get your activity integrated into your life. Then it becomes a part of your life rather than one more thing you must do.

Walking to the train is good, walking to the store works also. A social group that exercises gives you a reason to not skip.

Picking a further away parking lot would also help work a bit more activity in.

I've had good luck working out in the mornings. You do have to get up early but then events of the day don't interrupt your plans.

Posted by: Ginger | July 29, 2008 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I lost 32 pounds two years ago and it is a "everyday" program to keep it off. My diet consists of veggies, fruits, lighter meats, fish, lots of dairy stuff, and no processed foods. (And my internist says I have textbook blood panels!) At work, I take the stairs in my high rise (12) religously along with 30 minutes in the gym during lunch time 3X a week. I swim/do water aerobics every day for at least 1 hour. I get off the metro bus 2 stops early to walk a mile home, except when the weather is bad. On the weekends, I ride my Trek. At 55, I feel better than I did at 45....definitely lighter and healthier!

Posted by: Wanda | July 29, 2008 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Oh brother - article really saying need 90 minutes of increased heart rate 5X/week! Too many working women that just isn't feasible. Time to accept many body weights.

Posted by: average | July 29, 2008 2:02 PM | Report abuse

I have lost 40 pounds this year...and have kept it off so far. However, I make sure I work out five or six days a week, 30 minutes running w/ other stuff. To ask someone working and raising a family to put in over an hour each day to exersize 5/week is impossible without the whole family supporting. just my 2 cents.

Posted by: well... | July 29, 2008 3:59 PM | Report abuse

I've lost 55 pounds over the past two years and hope to lose 20 more. The weight came off easily at first without any exercise, but after the first 30 pounds it became apparent that I needed to be more active. Two years later, I exercise 5 to 7 days a week, by either using an elliptical during lunch for 35 minutes, or taking a 4 to 5 mile walk outside at a very brisk pace. I also walk .8 mile to and from the metro every day and run many errands through walking. The only thing that got me to start exercising was a running plan that turned a couch potato like my former self into a short distance runner (5K).

If I didn't exercise regularly, I would easily gain my weight back. Staying active is an essential component to my weight loss coupled with eating smaller portions, a high fiber diet, lots of whole foods, and minimal snacking.

Posted by: Melissa | July 29, 2008 4:46 PM | Report abuse

I lost 80 lbs. about ten years ago, the weight I gained while using Depo-Provera for birth control after I had my daughter in my later 30's. I lost it by sticking ruthlessly to a 1200 per day calorie diet (can't even begin to imagine that now) and taking to running for the first time since I was a kid, doing machine weight lifting for the first time in my life. But that was really too much weight to lose, as I had people asking me if I had cancer. In the years that followed I crept up to a normal BMI of 22 to 23 by eating a reduced carb diet, much more sustainable in the long run than an eternity of celery sticks, and exercising about three days per week, three hours total, concentrating more on weight lifting. What really helped make maintaining normal weight and shape was discovering free weights, barbells and dumbbells and body weight exercises such as manly man push ups, done in trisets of major muscle group exercises (for instance, a barbell squat followed immediately by a set of push ups followed immediately by a heavy dumbbell row). That's also a cardio-like workout, which I found to be much more effective than steady-state walking on the treadmill.

However....that's what I thought. I assumed diet had a role, but wasn't that big a deal, as I could eat as many calories as I wanted on low-carb, so long as I kept those carbs to about 60 to 70 grams per day.

Thanksgiving 2007 I splurged as I do every year, ate the stuffing and the mashed potatoes, etc. But suddenly, unlike previous years, I couldn't stop splurging on innumerable carbs. Had my last period Aug. 2006, natural menopause, 51-years-old this past Jan. I don't know if that had anything to do with it, but I also had/have a lot of sudden stressors in my life. Carbs induce a mindless sort of lethargy, like a drug. When you're stressed, mindless can sometimes feel like a good thing. But the carb lethargy/stress also sapped the will for purposeful exercise. I still walk around a lot, take the stairs at work, all that stuff, but maybe jog only once a week on the treadmill in one minute cycles alternating with running and only fitting in a free weight session maybe once or twice a week; this is not enough to stop 10 pounds of weight gain. So now I'm at BMI 25, overweight.

Still, the way I've been eating, Ben and Jerry's and Mr. B potato chips, I think the damage would be much worse without my free weight trisets and the intervals on the treadmill, when I get around to doing them. When I was maintaining a weight I liked, I found that spending an hour on a treadmill or a walk outside on the same terrain at a steady pace was not the answer. I wonder if those who have to spend 55 minutes per day five days per week adhere to this. Instead, go all out for short minute-long bursts of running, followed by a minute- long recovery walk. Repeat for as long as you can stand it. Do free weight trisets in such a way that you have to bargain with yourself to do that last pushup or that last squat. Really, you can get a decent cardio workout in 25 minutes that way, a decent weight work out in about 30 minutes. Three 30-minute periods of weights per week, three thirty minute periods of cardio that way (and they can be done on the same day), and we're at less than three hours per week of exercise, instead of the 55 minutes five days per week.

And when you get in your forties, or go through menopause, just walking around in everyday life, breaking up the time into easy chunks, just doesn't get it, or least it doesn't for me. I've found it requires sustained intense effort. Twenty-five sweaty non-stop intense minutes is easily worth 60 minutes of moving at an easier pace.

But now I truly know that maintaining weight is 80% food choices. I don't know if I could go back to counting calories again, but thank goodness I know from experience that I don't need to. 70 grams of carbs per day allows berries or a peach with salad and good veggie choices, but absolutely no junk. Not having to worry about fat intake means you never have to feel starved. And the latest research has shown that the low-carb/higher fat intake actually results in healthier lipid profiles, so that's not a worry.

But you have to do a lot of cooking from scratch on low-carb. You don't want processed anything. With my life as it is now, that's darned difficult, but I think posting this has psyched me out to stepping away from the Chunky Monkey and pasta and bread going back to what I know works. Thanks so much for listening!

Question: what has menopause done to anyone else's attempts to maintain a decent weight?

Posted by: kim | July 29, 2008 7:05 PM | Report abuse

What a great bunch of comments; sounds like many of us are in this weight-loss maintenance thing together. And it IS hard work. Our experiences argue strongly against the utility of quick-fix diets, don't you think? I'd like to hear answers to Kim's question about menopause and weight maintenance. Any thoughts, anybody?

Posted by: Jennifer Huget | July 29, 2008 7:11 PM | Report abuse

I can't attest to difficulty with weight loss after menopause after menopause because I'm only 24, but maintaining long-term weight loss is a real challenge. I was an obese teen at 15, then lost 115 pounds in a year, then gained back 30 pounds, and finally my weight found its set point and settled at 145-150 pounds (BMI=23). Six years later, I remain at a healthy weight, and I'm proud to have beaten childhood obesity. It's work, though. I make a point of listening to my internal hunger and satiety cues. I exercise (run or eliptical)120-180 minutes per week and, in addition, make a point of walking as much as possible. I do eat whatever I want, but ALWAYS mearsure an exact portion of indulgent items (cake, candy, ice cream, guacamole, cheese, cookies). And I never eat fast food.

Oh, and I weigh myself every week. If my weight is up (usually a pound or two), I exercise more. I figure that even if the scale is reflecting water weight, the extra exercise will only benefit me!

It sounds like a lot of work, but at this point it's all a part of my lifestyle, so I don't find maintaining the loss difficult. I can't even remember what it was like being obese.

Posted by: KP, a dietitian | July 29, 2008 10:14 PM | Report abuse

After a serious injury which required 2 surgeries, I gained quite a bit of weight. Depressed, in a lot of pain, worried about my ability to work and recovery, the stress of therapy and endless medical examinations. It was a nightmare. Luckily I am on the other side of it now and had great success with a product called "BodyBugg" made by Body Media. It tracks how many calories I burned doing everything during the day, then when I entered my food I was able to see exactly how many calories I should (or should not) eat, or if I needed to move my butt more.

Various diets are good and they all work - if you stick to them! People usually feel so deprived, or they cheat and give up saying "well, I may as well since I already messed up!"

But the basic formula of BURN MORE CALORIES THAN YOU EAT is all that matters. This tool has done the trick for me.

Posted by: Deborrah, a Fitness Trainer | July 29, 2008 11:59 PM | Report abuse

I would like to reply to Kim's questions. My specialty is training women here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and perimenopausal and menopausal women are the bulk of my clientele.

Question: what has menopause done to anyone else's attempts to maintain a decent weight?

Answer: After the age of 30 adults begin to lose muscle mass. Many European and Asian women notice a marked decrease in bone density in their 40s and 50s as well. A woman that does not incorporate resistance training (weights) into her workout routine by the age of 35 is doing herself a great disservice.

Menopause means a decrease in the hormone estrogen. That keeps fat on women in the bust and hip/thigh area, perfect for nourishing a fetus. However, once a woman goes through menopause she begins to store fat like a male - in the trunk and abdominal area. That is why you see so many middle-aged women with pot bellies and little stick legs and arms. All their weight is in the middle!

This type of weight gain also increases a woman's risk for heart disease, for which estrogen provides some protection.

Kim is on the right track. Increase protein, reduce simple carbohydrates, and move your body at least 45 minutes per day IN YOUR TARGET HEART RATE RANGE. That means when you go out for a walk, you HOOF it sister, none of that sashaying conversational stuff. You should be breathing quite hard if you are really exercising.

Add 20-30 minutes of resistance training to your cardio, 2-3x per week, and you should see some amazing changes in your body. :)

Posted by: Deborrah, a Fitness Trainer | July 30, 2008 12:06 AM | Report abuse

My cousin gave me a fifteen minute work out plan that burns about 300 calories. So on days when I'm really busy, that works very well. My cousin also devised a fitness plan for me that gives me the option of working out at home or the gym. I signed up for a cardio class--having a commitment makes it easier to get to the gym. I walk to and from the metro at a brisk pace. I also LOVE metro stations with long escalators. I go up them as fast as I can carrying my heavy purse and lunch box. The key for me, though, is making the work out a part of my daily plan so that it becomes a habit. I try to work out at the same time every day. I know I'm on the right track because I've had to take a week off, and I can feel the difference.

Also, cleaning your house is a great way to burn some calories, especially cleaning your kitchen and bathroom.I worked up a sweat cleaning the grout in my shower with a toothbrush!

Most importantly, I've started to watch my portions and eat slower. I stop when I'm full. I make sure to have breakfast. I've also increased my calcium and water intake.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 30, 2008 7:59 AM | Report abuse

No amount of exercise can prevent weight gain if, as a previous poster indicated, calories consumed are greater than calories expended. I run 100 mile races and 8-10 Ultras of 50K or longer each year. I also weighed 208 lbs. (I'm just a bit over 6 feet tall). I went to see a nutritionist, who devised a slow weight loss program for me (I needed more protein, more fat, and fewer carbs). I lost about 27 lbs over 18 months. It's generally stayed off (I've regained 4 lbs) but I have to watch my simple sugar consumption. Carrot cake and cheesecake are way tooo tempting after an already sizable dinner.

Posted by: B. McNeill | July 30, 2008 8:30 AM | Report abuse

I've been successful in keeping off 100 pounds that I lost in 1995-97 by following a moderately low carb program. I still eat pretty much the same way I did when I was losing, except that since menopause, I've had to reduce calories (i.e., portion sizes and fats) in order to maintain the loss.

I started walking after I'd lost the first 35 pounds or so, and today I'm a fanatic about exercising. I generally do an hour a day, which is right in line with the study findings. It is tough to fit in some days, but not as much as you'd think - after being so heavy for most of my life, being active feels like a reward and a gift rather than something I have to make myself do. The trick for me has been finding activities I enjoy and can fit into my work/family schedule. I do Jazzercise and Curves, each of which combines aerobics and strength training and has a strong social element; and I walk my mini-daschund, which gives me quiet time and fresh air along with the aerobic exercise.

I've enjoyed reading everyone's stories - best wishes to all of us for continued success and good health!!!

Posted by: Jan R. in Oregon | August 6, 2008 10:26 PM | Report abuse

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