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Losing Weight May Benefit Your Heart — Even if You Gain Some Back

A new study suggests the health benefits of modest weight loss can last several years

spinner image red heart shape plate with fresh organic fruits and vegetables shot on blue background. A digital blood pressure monitor, doctor stethoscope, dumbbells and tape measure are beside the plate
fcafotodigital / getty images

It doesn’t take much: Losing even a modest amount of weight — we’re talking about 5 to 10 percent of your total body weight, if you have excess weight to lose — can come with some big health benefits. And new research suggests these benefits may last several years, even if some of the weight creeps back on.

study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes examined the results of 124 clinical trials totaling more than 50,000 participants. The researchers found that those who lost weight through what’s known as intensive behavioral weight loss programs — these often incorporate diet and exercise, paired with professional or peer support — had lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes than people who participated in less-intensive programs or no program at all. What’s more, these improved markers lasted at least five years, even if some weight was regained.

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The weight loss, heart health connection

The impact of these findings, nutrition scientist Chris Gardner explains, is far-reaching. “We have one of the most overweight countries in the world, and our health care system is getting crippled by this and it’s really affecting the quality of our lives in years to come,” says Gardner, a professor of medicine at Stanford and chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee.

In the U.S., roughly 2 out of 3 adults are overweight or have obesity, both of which are risk factors for many serious health conditions, including heart disease and stroke — two of the country’s top killers. These health issues are especially a burden among older adults.

“The larger picture here is huge, that we should do these things — basic ones here being diet and exercise,” Gardner says, emphasizing the importance of preventing premature disease.

In the study, researchers found that participants in the intensive programs saw, on average:

  • A 1.5 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury) drop in their systolic blood pressure (the top number on the reading) one year after losing weight. This number was still 0.4 mm Hg lower five years later. The American Heart Association considers a normal blood pressure to be less than 120 for the systolic reading and less than 80 for diastolic (the bottom number). 
  • The percentage of HbA1c, a test that shows your average blood sugar levels, was reduced by 0.26 at both the one- and five-year measurements.
  • The ratio of total cholesterol to good cholesterol was 1.5 points lower at the one- and five-year measurements.

The average weight loss across the different studies ranged from 5 to 10 pounds. Weight regain among participants — whose average age was 51 and whose average body mass index (BMI) was 33 — averaged 0.26 pounds to 0.7 pounds a year. Someone with a BMI of 18.5 – 24.9 is considered to be at a healthy weight; 25.0 – 29.9 is considered overweight; and 30 and above is considered obesity. 

The researchers note that the health benefits observed diminished with greater weight regain.


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“Many doctors and patients recognize that weight loss is often followed by weight regain, and they fear that this renders an attempt to lose weight pointless,” study coauthor Susan A. Jebb, a professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, said in a news release. “This concept has become a barrier to offering support to people to lose weight. For people with overweight or obesity issues, losing weight is an effective way to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

6 Tips for Maintaining Weight Loss

  1. Know your triggers and work to avoid them.
  2. Keep your eating patterns consistent — make meal plans so you are more likely to have healthy foods on hand.
  3. Stay physically active. People who have lost weight and keep it off typically get 60 to 90 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity most days of the week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Break it up with walks in the morning, at lunch and in the evening.
  4. Check your weight regularly.
  5. Get support from family, friends and health care providers.
  6. All is not lost if you slip into old habits. You can still get back on track.

Source: American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Jebb notes that more research is needed to see if the benefits persist after five years. Another thing that will be important to study going forward is how to help people maintain weight loss and, ideally, the health benefits that come with it, Gardner says.

Regaining some weight after a weight loss program is common. Research shows that only a small share of people who lose weight are able to keep it off in the long run. 

Still, Gardner hopes this latest research encourages people who want to lose weight to try to do just that, even if they’re hesitant for fear of regaining some. “I hope they’ll see this and think long term, five years out, it would be worth it to make a try,” he says. “And if a little comes back, it looks like I’m going to benefit from this. So, it’s worth it to try.”

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