Obesity is more than just a cosmetic problem. Being significantly overweight or obese is linked with a greater risk for a number of health problems including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. Exercise, combined with a clean diet, is one of the most effective weapons for controlling body fat, but it’s easy to forget that exercise still reaps benefits independent of weight loss, especially for people who are obese. Obese people who can’t manage to lose significant weight can still benefit from regular aerobic and resistance training workouts.
Exercise and Its Role in Metabolic Health and Obesity
You’ve probably heard the term “metabolically healthy obesity.” This refers to people who are obese but don’t have the metabolic problems many obese people have. A condition called metabolic syndrome affects a disproportionate number of men and women who are overweight and obese relative to those of normal weight. It’s not excess body weight that greatly increases an obese person’s risk for heart disease, but the metabolic problems associated with it.
How do you know if you have metabolic syndrome? People with this condition typically have blood pressure readings that are elevated, high fasting blood sugar, high triglycerides, and a low HDL-cholesterol, all risk factors for heart disease. They also usually have a large waistline due to excess amounts of deep belly fat called visceral fat. Having metabolic syndrome is a major risk factor for health problems like heart disease. Doctors usually make the diagnosis of metabolic syndrome based on having at least three out of four of these problems – large waistline, elevated blood pressure, high fasting blood sugar, elevated triglycerides or low HDL.
What role does exercise play? A new study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism uncovers the role exercise plays in helping people avoid the health consequences of obesity – even if it doesn’t lead to significant weight loss. Researchers followed almost 900 middle-aged women for seven years. During this time they monitored their heart disease risk factors, lifestyle and exercise habits. Although 43% of the women went on to develop further risk factors for heart disease, obese women who exercised regularly were significantly less likely to develop new risk factors for heart disease or signs of metabolic syndrome despite remaining overweight or obese. In these women, exercise offered health benefits irrespective of weight loss.
Why is this important? If you’re overweight or obese it’s easy to get discouraged when you don’t see the pounds drop off quickly. You might be tempted to stop, assuming it’s not working for you – but don’t. Exercise has metabolic benefits that won’t always show up on a scale or when you measure your body fat. In fact, exercise improves metabolic health in a number of ways. For one, it increases insulin sensitivity. After a workout, muscle cells suck up glucose at a 40% higher rate and insulin sensitivity remains high for up to 72 hours. That’s why you have to work out on a regular basis to keep your insulin sensitivity higher. Why is insulin sensitivity so critical? Insulin resistance, reduced insulin sensitivity, is a risk factor for heart disease and metabolic dysfunction.
That’s not the only way exercise reduces risk factors for heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Exercise modestly raises HDL-cholesterol, the form of cholesterol that helps remove cholesterol from the walls of arteries, thereby reducing heart disease risk. It also lowers blood pressure. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed all forms of dynamic exercise – aerobic and dynamic resistance training lowers blood pressure. Plus, high-intensity cardio helps control visceral belly fat, the type that’s strongly linked with heart disease. On the other hand, low-intensity exercise isn’t very effective for reducing visceral fat – so up the intensity of your workouts with high-intensity interval training.
As you can see, exercise improves metabolic health and heart disease risk factors in a number of ways. Not to mention, it’s also a good stress reducer. Although never proven, some experts believe chronic stress contributes to the development of heart disease.
What Does This Mean?
Don’t judge the benefits you’re getting from exercise based only on what you see on the scale. Exercise has metabolic benefits that don’t show up when you measure your weight or your body fat. Starting an exercise program usually brings about positive dietary changes too. These changes can further improve your metabolic health, lower your risk for heart disease and even help you lose weight if you’re overweight or obese. If you’re carrying too much weight, you can benefit from exercise even if you don’t shed a pound, but stick with it long time, add resistance training and high-intensity intervals and there’s a good chance you’ll see your body fat drop. You’ll feel better too!
Medical News Today. “Women Can Maintain Metabolically Healthy Obesity Through Exercise”
Diabetes Care March 2003 vol. 26 no. 3 944-945.
Int J Sports Med. 2000 Jan;21(1):1-12.
NEJM Journal Watch “Does Aerobic Exercise Increase HDL Levels?”
J Am Heart Assoc. 2013; 2: e004473
Medscape Family Medicine. “Effect of Exercise Training Intensity on Abdominal Visceral Fat and Body Composition”
WebMD. “Exercise Fights ‘Hidden’ Body Fat”
Related Articles By Cathe: