Health effects resulting from exercise versus those from body fat loss

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Jun;33(6 Suppl):S611-21; discussion S640-1. doi: 10.1097/00005768-200106001-00030.


Objective: The purpose of this review was to assess whether body weight confounds the relationships between physical activity and its health benefits.

Methods: The review includes 80 reports from population-based studies (Evidence Category C) of physical activity or fitness and cardiovascular disease (CVD) or coronary heart disease (CHD).

Results: Eleven of 64 reports on activity found no relationship between physical activity and disease. Of the remaining 53 reports, 11 did not address the possible confounding effects of body weight, nine cited reasons that weight differences should not explain their observed associations, and 33 statistically adjusted for weight (as required). Only three of these changed their associations from significant to nonsignificant when adjusted. Ten of 16 reports on cardiorespiratory fitness and CHD or CVD used statistical adjustment, and none of these changed their findings to nonsignificant. Population studies show that vigorously active individuals also have higher high-density lipoprotein (HDL)-cholesterol concentration, a major risk factor for CHD and CVD, than sedentary individuals when statistically adjusted for weight. In contrast, intervention studies, which relate dynamic changes in weight and HDL, suggest that adjustment for weight loss largely eliminates the increase in HDL-cholesterol in sedentary men who begin exercising vigorously. Adjusting the cross-sectional HDL-cholesterol differences for the dynamic effects of weight loss eliminates most of the HDL-cholesterol difference between active and sedentary men.

Conclusion: Population studies show that the lower incidence of CHD and CVD and higher HDL of fit, active individuals are not because of lean, healthy individuals choosing to be active (i.e., self-selection bias). Nevertheless, metabolic processed associated weight loss may be primarily responsible for the HDL differences between active and sedentary men, and possibly also their differences in CHD and CVD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / prevention & control
  • Cholesterol, HDL / blood
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Coronary Disease / epidemiology
  • Coronary Disease / prevention & control
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physical Fitness*
  • Weight Loss*


  • Cholesterol, HDL