It’s Not Just About the Scale

NOT ACHIEVING YOUR WEIGHT-LOSS GOAL can be a pretty frustrating experience–you might be tempted to buy some ice cream and turn your back on the gym. But, regardless of what number you see on the scale, there are plenty of reasons to keep pursuing your fitness goals.

One Tough Resolution

Weight loss can be toughWeight loss is the most popular New Year’s resolution; in one survey, 42 percent of respondents named weight loss among their top three goals for the year 2012. Unfortunately, weight loss can also be one of the most difficult goals to see to its end.

“Losing weight is the standing resolution people seem unable to achieve,” says Alexander Chernev, an associate professor at Northwestern University. “When making our resolutions, we think ‘big picture’ and focus on the long term. Then life takes over.”

For thousands of weight-loss wannabes, the process can be extremely frustrating. You can exercise, eat healthy and still find yourself wrestling with the scale. In one study, only 4.5 percent of those who set a weight-loss goal actually achieved that goal.

Take Daniel, for example. After losing 40 pounds and despite a career as a fitness instructor, he still couldn’t quite reach his target weight.

“We all have different weight goals we’re trying to achieve,” he says. “It can be pretty discouraging when you look in the mirror and don’t see what you think you should see.”

But if that describes your plight, there’s something you should know: there’s more to getting healthy than just moving the numbers on the scale. Even if you’re struggling to lose those last 10 pounds, you may be adding years to your life just by adhering to a healthy, active lifestyle.

Not Just Weight Loss

Regular exercise can help you develop new brain cells, increase your insulin sensitivity, increase your muscle mass and strength, lessen your risk of heart attack and stroke, strengthen your bones and improve your sleep quality. And yes, it can even help you lose weight.

“Among 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 associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “Exercise … lowers blood pressure and improves your [cholesterol and blood sugar numbers], even if you don’t lose weight.”

Besides improving the quality of your life, exercise can also help you increase the quantity of your life. One study that pooled data from more than 650,000 people ages 21 to 90 indicated that, regardless of the candidates’ body mass index, they would live longer if they included regular leisure-time physical activity.

Those who did no more than walk 75 minutes each week would live about 1.8 years longer, the study found, while those who doubled that amount gained another 1.6 years.

Those who were inactive and at normal weight lived 3.1 years less than those who were obese and active. But those who were both active and at normal weight saw 7.2 more years than those who were inactive and extremely obese.

“[A] modest physical activity program may have health benefits, even if it does not result in weight loss,” the study concluded. “The findings also suggest … that a lack of leisure time physical activity may markedly reduce life expectancy when combined with obesity.”

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So Losing Weight Isn’t Important?

Exercise can improve your wellness in dozens of ways, but that doesn’t mean you should just forget about weight loss. Losing weight still has additional benefits for your overall health that merely getting fit won’t give you.

“I think [the data] can be misinterpreted to suggest that obesity doesn’t matter in many people,” says Dr. Robert Ross, Director of the Obesity Research Center at Queens University. “I’m positive the investigators who make these observations are not intending to suggest obesity is a good thing—that, ‘You’re okay, don’t worry about it.’”

Instead, the message is that even if you achieve only modest weight-loss improvements, you’re still doing your body a world of good. In the study cited earlier where only 4.5 percent of participants achieved their weight-loss goals, 33 percent of that same group lost 10 percent of their bodyweight and 79 percent lost five percent—a weight-loss amount that can reduce one’s risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease.

“Weight loss is good for your blood pressure, for your blood fat profile and for processing glucose and insulin, and it reduces inflammation,” Dr. Lee says. “All of those things contribute to better health.”

So here’s a challenge for your 2013 resolution: This year, make it your number one health goal to achieve a state of greater fitness. Whether to run your first 10k race, walk a mile in under 20 minutes, do 30 pushups or deadlift twice your bodyweight, find an activity that you enjoy and set a goal to improve at it. Perhaps you’ve already set a goal to improve your health by losing 10 percent of your bodyweight. Great! But don’t stop there. Set a goal for reduced body fat percentage, an improved cholesterol profile or lower blood pressure.

“Both fitness and fatness matter, separately and together, for heart health,” Dr. Duck-Chul Lee of the University of South Carolina told The New York Times. “So much attention gets focused on weight reduction, but … maintaining your fitness over your lifetime is just as important.”