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Fitness Focus Copy-and-Share: Is Long-Term Weight Loss Possible?

Thompson, Dixie L. Ph.D., FACSM

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e3181f8a39f
DEPARTMENTS: Fitness Focus

This copy-and-share column focuses on achieving long-term weight loss.

Dixie L. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM, is the director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health and professor and department head for the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

The high percentage of overweight and obese Americans is frequently reported in mainstream media and scientific/medical publications. This increase in levels of overweight and obesity has provided a boost to the weight loss industry. Countless approaches to weight loss have been touted. Although many have expressed their opinions about how to lose weight, weight loss followed by weight regain is a common scenario. This leads to the question: Is long-term weight loss possible? And if the answer is yes, what are the keys to successful weight maintenance after weight loss?

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The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) was established in the early 1990s by Rena Wing, Ph.D., and James O. Hill, Ph.D., to gain a better understanding of those who have been successful at maintaining weight loss. It is their goal to identify eating, exercise, and other behavioral characteristics that are linked to successful long-term weight loss. Individuals who join the registry must have maintained a 30-lb weight loss for at least a year. Participants complete an annual survey to provide ongoing updates on their progress. At this point, approximately 5,000 people have joined the registry. On average, people have maintained a 66-lb weight loss for 5.5 years-truly successful weight loss!

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Exercise plays an important role in the lives of most NWCR participants. Although there is a wide variation in the amount and type of activity linked to weight loss maintenance, more than 85% of men and nearly 90% of women in the registry report regular exercise. The average weekly energy expenditure is just more than 2,600 kcal per week. This translates into 60 or more minutes of daily moderate activity or 30+ minutes of vigorous daily exercise. More than 80% of participants report using walking as an exercise mode. Other popularly reported exercises include resistance training (29%), cycling (18%), aerobics (16%), running (14%), and cardio-machines (15%). The take-home message seems to be that some form of exercise should be incorporated into one's lifestyle to assist with successful weight loss maintenance. It also is clear that the amount of exercise used by the NWCR participants is well beyond the minimum recommended for health improvement.

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Almost all NWCR participants report making a change in their food intake to lose and maintain weight. About one half report achieving weight loss on their own whereas others use some type of weight loss program. To maintain weight loss, participants generally use a moderate caloric intake with less than 25% of calories coming from fat. These individuals rarely visit fast food restaurants and avoid fried foods. Registry participants also weigh themselves regularly and use this self-monitoring to help them stay on track with their weight goals. Importantly, more than 90% of NWCR participants report that losing weight has improved their quality of life, energy level, mobility, general mood, and self-confidence.

Researchers have learned a great deal about successful weight loss maintenance from the NWCR. Overweight and obese individuals can learn to incorporate healthy eating and exercise habits into their daily lives. For those who make these changes, long-term weight loss is possible.

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