Why being fit is more important than losing weight, according to new research

Getting your fitness up is much more important than simply shedding pounds, if you want to improve your health

Person exercising in bid to lose weight
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Obesity rates across the globe have tripled in 40 years. Whether it's the rise of readily-available, cheap junk food, our increasingly sedentary lifestyles or a combination of the two. With obesity, naturally, comes a decreasing level of fitness: weaker muscles, an inability to walk or run far in case we place a strain on our body, heart and other organ problems, and much more. 

It's no surprise "lose weight" is one of the most popular fitness goals, and we have plenty of advice for those getting started (and, indeed, if you're at any point of your fitness journey: just check out our best exercises for weight loss and best fitness trackers guide for moves and kit that could really help you shed lbs). 

But in a world in which we're bombarded with junk food adverts and Netflix instantly puts on the next episode, losing weight is hard. We can often feel like a failure if the numbers on the scale don't match our expectations, discouraging us from trying again. But a new study says we shouldn't worry about the numbers – just concentrate on getting fitter. 

The study, published by researchers at the University of Virginia, found that when it came to improving your health and reducing risks of early death where possible, increasing physical activity and improving fitness appear to be superior to simply losing weight. Weight loss can happen in different ways: for some people, it's by a healthy diet of nutritious whole foods coupled with exercise, while for others, it's unsustainable fasting, restrictive diets, gastric bands or other surgeries. 

Person exercising in bid to lose weight

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The risk reductions involved in getting fit, rather than simply losing weight, were significantly greater, according to the researchers. Co-author Glenn Gaesser writes: "We realize that in a weight-obsessed culture, it may be challenging for programs that are not focused on weight loss to gain traction. 

"We're not necessarily against weight loss; we just think that it shouldn't be the primary criterion for judging the success of a lifestyle intervention program."

So where to start? To improve your cardiovascular fitness, we recommend you take up a joint-friendly exercise designed to improve your heart, burn calories and even provide resistance training to increase the density of your bones and muscles. Using a cross-trainer or elliptical machine at the local gym fits all those bills, or you could browse our best elliptical machine guide.

The next step is diet. Generally speaking, you want to burn more calories than you consume, so swapping processed and sugary foods with healthy, natural, whole foods wherever possible is the order of the day. Plenty of vegetables in place of starchy carbohydrates can provide lots of the nutrition you've been missing out on, and our portion size guide can keep you on the straight and narrow.

Matt Evans
Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and Channel Editor at Fit&Well. He's previously written for titles like Men's Health and Red Bull, and covers all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen kickboxer and runner. His top fitness tip? Stretch.