March 24th, 2010
05:51 PM ET

Keeping weight down means more than a few minutes of activity a day

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

If you're a middle aged woman and trying to keep your weight down you probably know how hard it can be. It seems like you're spending more time on the treadmill at the gym than at home. So how active do older women need to be in order to keep weight off? It all depends.

A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found women of normal weight who were successful in keeping the scale stable averaged approximately 60 minutes a day of moderate activity. Which means if you want to keep the weight off you've got to stay active!

The purpose of the study was to look at how much physical activity was needed to prevent long-term weight changes in women who ate a regular diet. Researchers looked at 34,079 healthy women in the U.S. over a 15-year period. The average age of the participants was 54. Over a schedule of months, the women reported their physical activity and body weight. They were then classified into different groups, depending on how many hours a week they were active

Overall the women gained an average of 5.7 pounds throughout the study. Compared with women who were very active, those who were not as active gained about .3 pounds more. But what was most interesting is investigators found that among those women who ate a normal diet, physical activity was associated with less weight gain only among women who had lower BMIs, (Body Mass Index). That means women who were leaner kept the weight off as long as they were active. And for all the women participants, those who were successful in maintaining normal weight (as opposed to losing weight) over the 15-year period, averaged approximately 60 minutes a day of moderate activity, from walking their dogs, to jogging or swimming, or even playing with their children.

According to the lead authors out of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School this research could help weight experts better understand why certain women gain weight as they age, as compared with others who live the same lifestyle. "Because the average U.S. adult gains weight with age, developing ways to prevent unhealthy weight gain would help them avoid having to lose weight and then trying to maintain that loss. Compared with the vast body of research on the treatment of overweight and obese individuals, little research exists on preventing weight gain," the authors write.

The data also suggest that the 2008 federal recommendation for 150 minutes per week, while clearly enough to lower the risks of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, is insufficient for weight gain prevention if women are not cutting calories. The authors also noted that for heavier women, cutting calories and upping their physical activity to 60 minutes or more was the only way to lose and then later maintain healthy weight in that group.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.