Exercise helps the heart even if it doesn't cause weight loss

Published: July, 2012

Some people who start an exercise program have trouble losing weight, and then get discouraged and quit. That's a serious error: according to a study published recently in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, regular exercise protects your health even if you don't lose weight. The study found the reverse is also true: losing weight can help your heart, even if you're not as active as you should be.

"I think the findings are encouraging, because they clearly show that among the individuals who gain weight, if you maintain your fitness, you're at a lower risk compared to those who gain the same amount of weight but don't maintain fitness," says Dr. I-Min Lee, an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

The benefits of exercise

"Exercise makes the heart less prone to arrhythmias, and it affects the sympathetic nervous system, which brings down your heart rate and allows your heart to work more efficiently," Dr. Lee says. "Exercise also lowers blood pressure and improves your lipid profile and glucose processing, even if you don't lose weight." Some people don't like to exercise, and try to lose weight just by dieting. For those who succeed, the weight loss is definitely good for you.

"Weight loss benefits many systems," says Dr. Lee. "Even if you lose weight mainly from dieting, not from exercise, weight loss is good for your blood pressure, for your blood fat profile, and for processing glucose and insulin, and it reduces inflammation. All of those things contribute to better heart health." The point is that weight loss without regular exercise, and regular exercise without weight loss, both help your heart. They reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and other fats, and insulin resistance, as well as metabolic syndrome. When regular exercise is combined with weight loss, the benefits are even greater.

Dr. Lee notes that a key finding of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology research is that study subjects with the lowest cardiovascular risk factors were those who both improved fitness and lost weight. And, as you'd guess, those who both lost fitness and gained weight had the highest cardiovascular risk.

Dr. Lee says the study reinforces the idea that we should all get physically fit, regardless of whether weight is lost. So where to start?

Get active

"For someone who's not accustomed to being physically active, we say start slowly and increase slowly" to avoid injury, says Dr. Lee.

The goal is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, such as brisk walking. Ideally, that means a brisk 30-minute walk, five days a week. But you can accumulate those minutes in shorter, more frequent exercise sessions each day. For example, instead of taking one 30-minute walk, take three shorter walks of 10 minutes each. They'll still have the same beneficial impact.

"Even going out for 10 minutes is great," she says. "You feel good about yourself. Build it up slowly until you can get to 30 minutes a day. For some people it may take a few weeks. For others, it may take longer."

Weight loss tip

If exercise isn't helping your weight loss, examine your calorie intake. "It's because the calories you take in exceed the calories you expend," says Dr. Lee. "If you want to lose weight, you can either exercise more or eat less—or do both."

But be encouraged if you're already exercising, says Dr. Lee. The evidence shows you're already on the road to a longer, healthier life.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.