Weight Gained During Exercise Hiatus Tough to Lose, Study Finds

Yesterday, Mark, in the comment section of Dear Mark: Chronic Cardio, said “It all comes down to this: fat loss depends 80% on what and how you eat.” As part of the Primal Blueprint the most important aspect of weight management is your diet – what you consume. But we are still left with the other 20%, and it shouldn’t go overlooked. Here is a prime example of what happens if you neglect physical activity.

A study in this month’s Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise suggests that fitness enthusiasts that abruptly halt their exercise plans not only gain more weight, but also have a harder time taking it off once exercise resumes.

Using data collected from the National Runners’ Health Study, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory compared the weight fluctuations of 17,280 men and 5,970 women who decreased their running distance with 4,632 men and 1,953 women who increased their running distance over a roughly seven year period.

Among the male participants running 20 or more miles per week and females running 10 miles or more per week, the pounds gained when distance was decreased was equal to the pounds lost when distance was increased. The researchers also noted that for these individuals, the weight gain associated with an exercise hiatus was generally easy to reverse once exercise was resumed.

However, among those that ran less, the weight gain associated with an interruption in exercise was far harder to take off. Specifically, runners who decreased their mileage from five to zero miles per week gained about four times as much weight as those who decreased their mileage from 25 to 20 miles per week. In addition, when exercise resumed, weight loss didn’t occur until mileage exceeded 20 miles per week in men and 10 miles per week in women.

Commenting on these findings, study author Paul Williams noted that “at lower mileages, there is asymmetric weight gain and loss from increasing and decreasing exercise, leading to an expected weight gain from an exercise hiatus.” However, he notes that “if you stop exercising, you don’t get to resume where you left off if you want to lose weight.”

He notes that the findings underscore the importance of avoiding irregular exercise patterns and suggests that future public health strategies focus on “getting people to exercise before they think they need it, and to stick with it,” adding that this study proves that an “ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure.”

Note that even the group involved in extended periods of running every week were better off than those doing none at all. We’re not advocating high-mileage running here, but this study highlights the importance of some level of consistent physical activity to effectively manage body weight.

I’d like to know what they were eating, too. If the diet was high in carbs (in order to replace the carbs burned during running) and they kept the high carb diet when not exercising, it makes sense that muscle would be lost, fat gained and the net impact would be a metabolic setback, making it harder to lose the newly stored fat.

So tell us, what are your tips for staying active year-round and what do you do to stop yourself falling off the fitness wagon?

via Science Daily

Peter Emmett Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

10 Ways to Stay Active During the Cold Winter Months

Mr. Sun Gives You Vitamin D

Weight Loss Plateau – 5 Ways to Get the Results You Want

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17 thoughts on “Weight Gained During Exercise Hiatus Tough to Lose, Study Finds”

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  1. Not to sound stupid here, but is this article posted as something you support? I thought following the paleo lifestyle meant engaging in totally irregular (though not infrequent) exercise patterns that don’t include running or doing repetetive motions for hours every week.

    I understand that exercise is important and should be done often, but I thought we were supposed to be fairly sporadic in our activities, and do more intense bursts of strength training rather than running mile after mile, and allow more time to rest than is normally recommended (i.e. exercising every few days instead of everyday).

    Or was the point of posting this article simply to express that taking too long a break from exercise will be more of a setback than we think? How long is too long? Three days? A week? Doesn’t it depend on what kind of workout & how hard a person worked?

    I don’t ever manage to stick to excercising very well, but I do try to stay active in my day to day activities by doing things like parking far away from the store, walking around while I’m on the phone, or taking stairs whenever I can.

  2. Funny I saw exercise and thought they meant resistance training….and then I saw “running” and went…Ohhhh, that makes more sense.

    Has to come down with the lack of muscle to keep the metabolism strong from running. Then when they stop the “cardio”, they obviously will gain only fat lbs. Without a strong muscle metabolism to get started again, they are worse off than when they started running. Pretty commonly seen with all the yo-yo dieters also. Resistance training to the rescue!

  3. Heather,

    No, I’m not espousing running here. This is simply an interesting study on what happens when you stop exercising. As I say often, the “Primal Blueprint” (my trademarked term for my lifestyle) is a combination of eating, exercising and living “styles” that cause us to control our gene expression in a certain healthy fashion. 80% of your results will come from how you eat….but YOU STILL HAVE TO EXERCISE. This study is just one further example of that.

    1. Mark it is NOT a study. The key word is their data SUGGESTS. What that says to me is that some “scientists” (and I use that word loosely) looked over some data and drew a few conclusions.

      A true scientific study would involve a lot more than just looking at some loosely connected data and making a few guesses as to what it meant.

  4. Two questions:
    Does this hold true for pregnancy? I’ve managed to work out through all 4 of my pregnancies but I’ve had to significantly reduce intensity/load as I progress.

    Also, the article you quote seems to say the exact opposite of what you highlighted in bold. You (in bold) say that the more fit people gained more weight when they quit exercising and had a harder time losing it when they resumed exercise. But the quote from the article right below that says it was the individuals who ran less (ie were less fit) that gained the most weight (four times as much) and had a harder time taking it off. This seems contradictory. Am I reading it wrong? What am I missing?

  5. Thanks for catching that, Charlotte. It was worded kind of funny. Typo amended. Thanks again!

  6. Hi, Mark:

    I just discovered your blog and I love all the information you’ve got here. This article was particularly interesting to me — I lost 26 pounds last year as Shape magazine’s Weight-Loss Diary columnist and my goal is to keep up the healthy lifestyle I’ve spent the last year developing.

    After my column ended, I took some time off from the gym (it was a pretty intense year!) but I went back within a month. I figured I’d pick up right where I left off, but in some ways, it felt like I was starting over, fitness level-wise. I’ve learned my lesson, and now I make sure to incorporate some movement into every day.

    Look forward to learning more here!

  7. to respond to the question at the end of the article asking what we do to not fall off the fitness wagon, here’S how I handle my training:
    I work out at least every other day. sometimes it might be more often(if for example wrestling practive falls on a day where I dont have to train), and sometimes I might not find the time to do a workout on the second day, so I do it on the third, which would otherwise be a day off. also, if I should work out on saturday but can’t find the time but was at practice on friday, I will just count that as saturdays workout.
    this way I make sure I get some (usually pretty intense) exercise in 50% of the time (days) in a way that still leaves me with a fair amount of freedom.
    if I’m really short on time and can’t postpone a workout, I’ll at least do a so called “7-minute-workout” that I know from a german coach, which consists of 7 exercises each done for a minute, no breaks. I do it right before hitting the shower and I’ve at least done something.

    I’ve also found that several weeks of working out in a 3days on – 1 day off fashion (like crossfit) left me looking for excuses. so I’ll only “force” myself to a 1on-1off schedule, so I can always look forward to relaxing the next day .)

  8. I’ve had opportunity to consider the weight gain after someone abruptly stops exercise. I think a portion of the weight gain is due to emotional eating. Exercise provides a fabulous discharge for anxiety and other potentially adverse emotions which oftentimes lead a sedentary person to eat as a way of offsetting unpleasant emotions.


  9. hey Mark

    Could you post details of your 7 minute workout? Might be an interesting resource to have in reserve.

  10. hey Danny,
    in case you really meant to ask me for the 7 minute workout: it consists of the following:
    1. minute: jumping jacks
    2. minute: Bethaks (or hindu squats, but normal squats could be a replacement)
    3. minute: Dands (or hindu pushups, but again, normal pushups could be done as a replacement)
    4. minute: plank hold (static exercise,straight body resting on your toes and forearms, everything thightly flexed)
    5. minute: shoulder bridge (also static,touching the floor with your shoulders/feet, the body forms a triangle shape with the floor. stomach faces the ceiling)
    6. minute: mountain climbers (but not just stepping back and forth but rather getting the foot outside your hand on each step)
    7. minute: burpees (but I do a stripped down version with no pushups and no jump in this case)

    I just try to get as many proper reps as possible on each exercise.

  11. Let me throw something out there concerning weight loss and exercise. Back in mid-August I weighed 242–three months later I weighed 212. On the diet side of the equation, I followed Mark’s advice pretty much to the letter to include my dedicated Tupperware giant salad bowl. On the exercise side, I was doing kettlebell workouts four days a week including lots of swings that get the heart rate going. I was also playing racquetball 2-3 times a week at a fairly high level. I wore a heart-rate monitor once and it really was like an extended interval session. I also took walks and even did a couple of Tabata workouts on an indoor bike. But then I developed some serious pain in a hip flexor (at around the three month mark) and have been unable to play racquetball since. I also backed of the kettlebell because I think that was how I injured it in the first place. I was still able to ride a bike without pain so I did a mixtue of medium effort steady rides with some interval work, and started some resistance training that included some body exercise routines to give it some cardio impact. I’ve maintained my eating style throughout and this morning I weighed 208. I’ve spent the last three months floating up and down in the 206-210 range. So that has me thinking that FOR ME at least, exercise is a fairly important factor in controlling weight. I guess the only way I’ll know for sure is if I get back out on the racquetball court and start swinging that KB again (being carefull not to overdue the hip-snap). I’m going to try again in a couple of weeks and hope the pain doesn’t return. If it does, then I think it’s time for orthopedic consult!

  12. Dave,

    Wanna be my posterchild for the Primal Blueprint?

    Congrats on your progress. I love the kettlebells, but like anything else, too much can throw you off. The danger is that you get injured and then lose progress. Of course, that’s why the word “cross-training” was invented…so you can explore new things while you old injuries heal. Maybe take this time to work easily on core and stability stuff with the idea of rehabbing untrained muscle rather than burning calories.

    But don’t forget that this lifestyle really hinges on how you eat, so you needn’t get discouraged even when you are forced into a brief layoff….as long as you continue to eat Primally. I guarantee that in the runner study cited, the weight gains came from continuing the high carb input.

  13. I am definately finding this a problem! I’m so glad I found this information as I was starting to get de-motivated.

    I went to Thailand volunteering for a few months and therefore stopped my 2 daily gym sessions and in that time I put on a few inches here and there…and i mean a few.

    I’ve been back 2mths and seriously struggling to get back to where I was when I left. I have not lost a single centimeter and I’ve even been watching what I eat far more than what I did when I went away.

    Does this mean I need to increase the volume of exercise required to lose the stubborn fat more than what I was doing before because I am not sure if that is possible?

    All help appreciated. 🙂

  14. It doesn’t work! Plus awful syringe continuously clogging, drying up and mine stopped meting out all inside a month.