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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Move More, Gain Less Weight With Age

High Activity Levels Over Time Reduce Weight Gain With Age, Study Finds
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 14, 2010 -- Keep moving as a young adult and you will likely lessen the dreaded middle-age spread, according to a new study that focused on physical activity and weight gain over time.

Young adults who maintained a high level of physical activity gained less weight in middle age, found researcher Arlene Hankinson, MD, an instructor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

''Activity has an effect, but it doesn't completely eliminate age-related weight gain," she tells WebMD.

But it does help, she finds, and the benefit appears greater for women, though she is not sure why.

Highly active women gained 13 pounds less over 20 years than women with low activity levels, while highly active men gained 6 pounds less than the men with low activity levels.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

While some who hope activity can wipe out age-related weight gain may see the results as discouraging, Hankinson disagrees. "I think it's extremely optimistic news," she says. "It's showing how beneficial activity is in reducing weight gain with age."

Physical Activity and Weight Gain: The Study

Hankinson evaluated 3,554 participants in the CARDIA study, an ongoing study that now has 20 years of follow up.

Participants were ages 18 to 30 at the start of the study. They answered questions about activity at follow-up exams done after two, five, seven, 10, 15, and 20 years.

Hankinson evaluated weight, body mass index (BMI), and waist circumference. She took into account such factors as age, alcohol use, and calorie intake.

She looked at the differences in activity levels in two ways: by comparing those in the top level of activity with those in the lowest level and by evaluating those who got 150 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous intensity activity a week. (The 150 minutes of moderate activity is recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)

When she compared the high activity group with the low? "Women who had low activity gained 33 pounds over the 20 years while women who had high activity gained 20 pounds over the 20 years," she says.

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