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Feb. 16, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Even when the bathroom scales don't show weight loss, people who exercise at least three times a week are gaining health benefits. A study at Duke University Medical Center shows that regular exercisers make significant improvements in heart health. The study is published in the February issue of the journal Exercise Physiologist.

"A lot of people get discouraged with exercise programs when they don't lose weight. But that shouldn't discourage them. They're accruing health benefits despite the fact that they're not losing weight," study author William E. Krauss, MD, professor of cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, tells WebMD. "What we're really trying to study here is how much exercise someone needs to get health benefits -- not to get fit, but to get health benefits." Krauss says that, in their study, they found significant improvements in cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

While the study had only seven volunteers, Krauss says that the changes were so uniform that they are considered important. "We feel very confident about the conclusions of this study," he says. The study looks at the effects of a four-times-a-week exercise program in mildly obese patients. Says Krauss, "It's not like Olympic training, but it's hefty. We call it moderate exercise." The volunteers (all between 40 to 55 years old and nonsmokers) had mildly elevated cholesterol levels and no history of heart disease. Each reported to the Duke Center for Living fitness center for hour-long workouts on treadmills, stairclimbers, crosstrainers, and exercise bicycles.

All volunteers were weighed regularly, and caloric intake was adjusted to maintain the weights they had at the beginning of the study. "When there's not a true nutritional component to a weight-loss program, it's hard to lose weight," Krauss says.

All showed reductions in body fat and increases in aerobic fitness levels. And although triglyceride levels, a risk factor for heart disease, did not change significantly, there was a strong indication that decreases were occurring. LDL ('bad') cholesterol decreased in six of the volunteers and HDL ('good') cholesterol increased significantly in all. While obesity is a risk factor for diabetes, the study showed across-the-board improvements in all volunteers' sugar metabolism function -- therefore reducing risk of diabetes.

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