The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Exercise for Weight Maintenance: How Long??

Posted in
Live well

Monday, Aug 16, 2010

  What is the most important factor in weight maintenance? Level of physical activity, caloric intake, or other factors? About 80% of people who lose weight gain it back. How can we keep the weight off?

An article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reviewed the research addressing the amount of exercise necessary to prevent weight gain2.  Low physical activity was found to account for about 77% of weight gain in one year. Exercise and physical activity play a primary role in weight maintenance. The other 23% may be affected by diet and metabolism.

A study in International Journal of Obesity assessed differences in activity between weight-gainers and weight-maintainers4. Gainers were defined as subjects who gained more than 13 pounds in one year and maintainers were defined as subjects who gained less than four pounds in one year.

Physical activity was calculated based on intensity level using a concept called METs which stands for Metabolic Equivalents. The energy expenditure at rest is 1 MET. This is the effort of someone sitting quietly. A person walking at 3.0 mph on level ground is working at an intensity of 3.3 METs which is 3.3 times the energy expenditure at rest. They measured how much time subjects spent in exercise and activities where the intensity was 4 or more METs. This intensity level is equivalent to any moderate intensity activity such as yard work or walking at a 3.5 mph pace.

Researchers found that maintainers spent more time in moderate intensity physical activity than did the gainers. On average the maintainers spent an average of 79 minutes a day while the gainers spent less than 16 minutes a day performing moderate intensity activities. Supporting these results Schoeller and associates3 estimate people need to spend 80 minutes every day in moderate physical activity to prevent weight gain. These findings are similar to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines. The ACSM guidelines recommend 50-60 min/day for a total of 300 min/week1.

Eighty minutes of physical activity a day requires commitment and may not be achievable for everyone. There are realistic ways to achieve weight maintenance if you can’t reach those 80 minutes of continuous exercise. Options include incorporating short bouts of exercise (10 minutes or more) throughout the day. In contrast you can perform higher intensity exercise which requires only 30 minutes a day/5 days a week. This involves an intensity level greater than 6 METs such as jogging.  Another high intensity training option is interval training.  With interval training, short bouts of high intensity exercise are alternated with brief periods of recovery when exercise intensity is moderate. 

In addition to exercise it is important to live an active lifestyle and follow a healthy diet to help maintain your weight. There are simple ways to increase your activity throughout the day. This includes taking the stairs whenever possible, walking over to a co-worker rather than shooting him/her an email, or taking ten minute walking breaks throughout the day. For more ways to work physical activity into your day, check out Achieving and Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle- What Really Works? And finally, following a nutrient-filled food plan with lots of fruits, veggies, and lean protein adds to your success. What are some lifestyle activities excluding traditional exercise you use to maintain your weight?

1. American College of Sports Medicine. (2009). ACSM's Guidelines for ExerciseTesting and Prescription. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

2. Hunter, G.R. & Byrne N.M. (2005). Physical activity and muscle function but not resting energy expenditure impact on weight gain. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 19, 225-230.

3. Schoeller, D.A., Shay, K., & Kushner, R.F. (1997). How much physical activity is needed to minimize weight gain in previously obese women? Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 66, 551–556.

4. Weinsier, R.L.,Bracco, D., & Schutz, Y. (1993). Schutz. Predicted effects of small decreases in energy expenditure on weight gain in adult women. Int. J. Obes. 17, 693–700.