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Women and Weight: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

During a typical week in the office, sometimes I think the number of women who tell me “I’m trying to lose weight” is equal to the very number of women patients I see.

Statistics show that most Americans have good reason for concern. As of 2009, just 30% of us were of normal weight (BMI less than 25), while 35% were overweight (BMI 26 to 34), and 35% obese (BMI 35 and higher). To calculate your BMI and get depressed, but then courageously pass your chocolate scone to a co-worker or an innocent child, click here.

Virtually all Americans gain weight as they age. American women seem to exercise more than men with the objective of keeping their weight down. You can see this for yourself by taking an informal survey, as I’ve done: count joggers by gender or visit health clubs to see who’s actually doing something that could burn calories.

How much do you have to exercise to prevent the inevitable weight gain that occurs as we age? Preventing weight gain surely must be more effective than the dismal results from our attempts to lose it.

In a recent study, overweight and obese men and women were given intense nutritional counseling and their very own home treadmills. They lost an average of 19 pounds in six months … but every single one gained back the weight within two years.

Prevention couldn’t possibly score worse than this — could it? Quick answers to quick questions:
• “Can exercise alone prevent weight gain?” Rarely.
• “How much exercise?” Much more than you’d think.
• “Does it work for everybody?” Definitely not.

A report in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) tracked 34,079 women over 15 years, with a fairly equal division of normal weight, overweight, and obese among them. Investigators monitored weight gain over the next 15 years, tracking it against the amount of daily moderate exercise the women were reporting. “Moderate” included jogging, treadmills/ellipticals, cycling, swimming, and so forth.

However, during the study (and this is important), none of the women in any of the following three groups changed their eating habits. This study tested the effects of exercise only.

Researchers divided the women into three groups based on the duration of their workouts and the number of weekly workouts they did. The three groups were: the non-exercisers; the regular exercisers averaging 30 to 45 minutes three or four times per week; and the serious exercisers, who did an hour per day seven days a week.

Conclusions? With or without regular exercise, everybody gained weight except for one group — the women who started the study with normal weight and exercised to the max, an hour daily or more. These women, and only these women, kept their weight stable over the full 15 years.

This means regular exercise — even 30 minutes a day — may be useful for preventing disease (such as heart disease and high blood pressure), but it doesn’t work for losing weight or preventing the weight gain that occurs with age.

To prevent inevitable age-related weight gain we have to permanently change the way we eat. “Diets” simply don’t work because we think we can reward ourselves by going “off” the diet some glorious day in our svelte futures. Nope. You’ll just gain weight again. What most of us need to do is eat less food and make better food choices, as a permanent lifestyle change.

A few tips:
• Rid yourselves of all eleven inch plates, using a 9” plate instead.
• Bring no bowls of food to the dinner table.
• Take home half of any restaurant meal (and strictly limit eating out).
• Reduce all grain-based foods by half. You don’t need white-flour bread, pasta, and pizza. Choose whole-grain versions instead.
• Avoid high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) like the poison it is.
• Learn to cook — it’s the best way to control nutrients and portion size.
• Load up on veggies and fruits each and every day.
• As for desserts: unless it’s fruit, dessert should be history.

To sum up, all Americans gain weight as they age. Very vigorous exercise (an hour daily) prevents weight gain only in women who are already at a normal weight. Everyone can benefit from exercise to prevent chronic illness and to feel their best. But to prevent weight gain … you need to change the way you eat.

Leave a Comment


  1. Ellen Hargis says:

    Dr. E, after your last article on weight control, we took your advice:

    We got Lose it! for our iPhones, a digital kitchen scale, and a digital personal scale. We bought smaller plates, and we already have a treadmill at home. So we used them all. Even with our crazy life of traveling several weeks each month, I’ve lost 10 lbs and David has lost 15.

    When people ask how we did it we say “oh, it’s very retro. We count calories!”

    I should add that we are major foodies. I love to cook, and we eat butter, steak, pasta, chocolate, vegetables, fruit, bread… just homemade and in careful portions. We also drink wine. We’re not into self-denial! Thanks for the advice!

    Ellen and David

  2. Amy Schuman says:

    Yes, David, I just keep nodding my head in recognition as I read this article. Thank you for the clarity, the wisdom and continued inspiration. I have recently cut meat almost completely out of my eating as a way to lighten the load and cut calories. It’s helped quite a bit.

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