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Turning Fat Into Muscle



Jacques Courseault's article in this week's newsletter takes apart the exercise myth that if you stop exercising, your muscle will turn to fat. That should be good news for those of you who might have fallen off the exercise wagon. Even better news for those who train with weights comes today in an article in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension (2010;12(1):64-72).

Researchers at the University of Missouri noted that both resistance training and weight loss - independent of each other - are known to help improve both abdominal obesity as well as insulin resistance, both risk factors for diabetes and heart disease. They also noted that most overweight and obese persons who lose weight tend to gain at least some of that weight back. Could resistance training help those who regain some weight hang on to some of the benefits of weight loss?

They recruited 9 people between the ages of 34 and 40 with an average Body Mass Index of 33.8 (clinically obese). The participants were nonsmokers and were otherwise fairly healthy. For the first phase of the study the participants lost weight by engaging in aerobic exercise (such as using a treadmill, stationary bike or elliptical trainer) and reducing their caloric intake with the help of nutrition counseling. The goal for this phase, which lasted about 11 weeks, was for each participant to lose about 1.5 to 2 pounds per week.

In the second phase the participants stopped doing aerobic exercise and switched to only resistance training, using free weights as well as exercise machines. They also increased their caloric intake to regain about half the weight they had lost.

At the start of the study, at the end of the weight loss period and again at the end of the resistance training period, the participants had their cholesterol levels checked, as well as blood pressure, Body Mass Index and Waist to Hip Ratio. In addition, the researchers also measured overall lean body mass and body fat percentage while also measuring how much of that body fat was in the abdomen.

Their results are quite interesting. As you might expect, losing weight by doing aerobic exercise and reducing calories improved the participants' Body Mass Index, while their overall body fat percentages and their abdominal fat declined. Their total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) also fell, as did their insulin levels.

When they regained some of the weight, however, their cholesterol levels, both total and LDL, returned to about the same as they were at the start of the study. On the other hand, they kept about half of the improvements they had made in insulin resistance, Waist Circumference, overall body fat percentage and abdominal fat while becoming physically stronger.

What this means for you

This is a very small study but the results are in line with the results of other studies. Since the participants in this study only regained some of the body fat they had lost, you might say that resistance training helped fat turn into muscle. Now there's a good reason to pick up some weights.

First posted: February 24, 2010