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Dec. 7, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Gaining up to 20 pounds over four years can significantly decrease quality of life, according to a study in the Dec. 8 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study asked over 40,000 women to rate their ability to perform simple tasks, their experience with bodily pain, and their overall vitality during the study period to determine how weight gain or loss affects quality of life.

The study found that a weight gain of 5-20 pounds resulted in decreased physical functioning and lower overall feelings of vitality. Weight gain also increased feelings of bodily pain.

"We asked simple questions about lifting and carrying groceries, climbing flights of stairs, and their experience with a range of basic functions of daily life," Harvard University assistant professor of medicine Ichiro Kawachi, MD, tells WebMD. The women were asked 36 questions that rated their abilities on a scale from 0 to 100.

"We found that weight gain was among the strongest predictors of declining physical function, stronger than current smoking," says Kawachi, who co-authored the study along with a team of Harvard researchers. "We also found that even with women who started out at a normal range of weight, a moderate gain of 5-19 pounds was still associated with a decline in functioning and energy level."

The study also found that while weight gain and loss were associated with the worst and best quality of life scores, it found that among women who maintained their weight, quality of life remained high.

"The message of even maintaining weight is a very important preventive goal," says Kawachi. "If you can prevent adding a couple of pounds a year, it would translate into a health gain in terms of function, as well as the known risk factors for cardiovascular and related health."

Physicians know that being overweight increases the risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes among other disorders.

The study cites national statistics showing that over the past 15 years, the average weight of Americans has increased by nearly eight pounds.

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