Feature Archive

A Pound of Prevention

If you're on the heavy side, losing even a little weight can make a huge difference to your health. Here's why.

WebMD Feature

July 24, 2000 -- "Lose 15 pounds in just 8 years!" This promise may not be exciting enough to sell millions of diet books, but if you're overweight, a minor, sustained weight loss could make a major difference to the health of your heart.

Just ask Jerry Messing, a 70-year-old retired salesman in West Palm Beach, Fla. Eight years ago, he carried a hefty 214 pounds on his medium-build, 5-foot-10-inch frame. But like many men, he wasn't terribly concerned about his extra weight. Sure, he thought about losing some. He bought an exercise bicycle that he planned to ride while watching television, but after a few earnest attempts, the bike sat in the corner of his bedroom, ignored. Like millions of Americans, Messing just didn't stick to his resolution to exercise.

Then, in 1992, Messing suffered a heart attack, which, fortunately, he survived. After the attack, his cardiologist said his blood pressure was sky high and prescribed medication to help control it. He also urged him to lose weight.

Messing previously lacked motivation, but a heart attack and his doctor's urgings were a wake-up call to inspire change. Today, his weight is down to 199. While this is not a dramatic weight loss -- just 15 pounds, or about two pounds a year -- his blood pressure is back to normal and he feels better, too.

Can just two pounds a year really make a difference? "People who lose a modest amount of weight, such as a pound or two a year, and keep it off, dramatically reduce their risk of hypertension and diabetes, two conditions that negatively affect the heart," says Lynn L. Moore, DSc, an epidemiologist and an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. "The more weight you lose, the more you reduce your risk, but even small, sustained changes help a lot."

Moore and her colleagues have looked closely at the health histories of 1,800 overweight and obese adults enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study. The researchers found that those who lost a pound or more annually over two periods of four years reduced their risk of developing high blood pressure as much as 50% and cut their risk of diabetes by one-third (see Modest Weight Loss Tied to Big Benefit).

"What's so exciting about this research is that the results that we wished to be true are true," says Moore. "You don't have to lose a drastic amount of weight to dramatically change your health for the better."

While both diet and exercise are important, Moore thinks that increasing activity is probably the best way "to change the energy balance" and burn calories and lose weight. How much activity does it take? Less, she says, than most people think. She believes that small, daily efforts -- taking the stairs instead of an elevator or walking to nearby destinations instead of driving -- may do more than occasional, intense exercising. "Activity has to be consistent to make an enduring change," she says.

So what does Jerry Messing now do differently? "I've made small changes that I've stuck with," he says, "such as eating less bread, switching from whole milk to skim, having cereal in the morning instead of a muffin, and taking the skin off chicken before I eat it. Plus, I do a lot of walking."

Indeed. These days, instead of watching game shows on television, he takes an hour-long walk every evening after dinner. And while his wife snacks daily on cookies and sweets, Messing has learned to abstain. If he really craves a snack, he'll have a single cookie. After all, he says, "there's nothing sweeter than feeling well."

Reverse the Pound-a-Year Pattern

Of course, it's best to lose weight before problems begin. It's just that so many men aren't aware of how the pounds can sneak up.

Ron Drummond, 45, a computer graphics specialist in New York City, recalls the moment that made him finally get serious about losing the "spare tire" around his midsection. He calls it "The Banana Republic Incident."

"I was in the dressing room trying on pants that were too tight in the waist," he says. "So I asked the salesperson for one size up, then a size up from that, and so on. Finally, the salesperson found me a pair that fit. I was relieved until he asked, 'So you're going with the 35s?' Hearing him say that out loud really brought home how much I'd let myself go. After all, I was a 31 waist in college."

At 5-foot-11 and 182 pounds, Drummond was far from obese, but his gradual weight gain -- pound by pound, inch by inch -- is a dangerous and all-to-common path to be on, says Moore. In fact, a month after that shopping excursion, Drummond experienced a very rapid heartbeat while exercising and went to the doctor to check it out. His blood pressure was 135/90, on the borderline of high.