A team of researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham lead by exercise physiologist Gary Hunter, Ph.D., set out to study whether a continuing exercise program could help people who succeed in losing weight avoid regaining that weight and, specifically, the unhealthy visceral fat they had lost.
A layer of fat buried beneath the muscles of the abdominal cavity, visceral fat—or “belly fat”—is particularly harmful. As Dr. Hunter notes in a brief video discussion of the UAB report, accumulation of visceral fat is linked to health risks of many kinds, including a “much worse blood lipid profile, higher cholesterol, lower HDL cholesterol, higher triglycerides, a higher risk of cancer, and increased risk of developing diabetes.” Visceral fat has also been identified as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Moderate Exercise Shown To Reduce Visceral “Belly Fat” Return For Dieters
The Alabama study took a group of 97 women (about half African-American and half European-American) and placed all on an 800-calorie-per-day diet. One subgroup was instructed to engage in aerobic exercise training, a second group did resistance exercise training, and a third group did no exercise training.
When the 800-calorie diet concluded, the study participants were found to have lost an average of 24 pounds. The groups that had exercised were instructed to continue their exercise programs for 40 minutes twice a week for the next year.
The subjects’ total fat, abdominal subcutaneous fat and visceral fat were measured at the beginning and end of the study.
Study participants who stuck with the exercise programs for the year—whether aerobic or resistance—gained back significantly less weight than either the non-exercisers or the people from the original exercise groups who did not continue to exercise. Those who exercised also maintained their loss of visceral fat, while the others showed increases ranging from 25% to 38%. Aerobic and resistance exercise programs turned out to be equally effective. There was also no difference in the results between African-American and European-American subjects.
"What we found was that those who continued exercising, despite modest weight regains, regained zero percent visceral fat a year after they lost the weight," Hunter said. "It’s encouraging…that this relatively small amount of exercise was sufficient to prevent visceral fat gain."
Dr. Hunter further points out that as people age, both men and women have a tendency to gain more harmful visceral fat as adipose tissue partitioning changes and fat deposits increase. If, as these study results suggest, even moderate exercise training can slow that increase, these findings could have positive implications for reducing the risk of developing a number of different forms of cancer.