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Exercise boosts mitochondrial function and promotes weight loss among people who struggle to lose weight with dieting alone.

Most weight loss programs focus on reducing caloric intake. Although this strategy works for many people, a subset of people with obesity are diet-resistant – failing to lose weight even when adhering to a low-calorie diet. Findings from a new study suggest that exercise promotes weight loss in diet-resistant women by boosting mitochondrial function.

Mitochondria are tiny cellular organelles that produce energy in the presence of oxygen. They are often referred to as the “powerhouses of the cell” because of their role in the production of ATP. Mitochondrial dysfunction, the disruption of normal mitochondrial function that occurs over time, is a driver of many chronic diseases, such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, and is a hallmark of aging.

The investigators enrolled 20 women with obesity for the study. Half of the women had exhibited diet resistance when following a 900-calorie-per-day diet, while the other half had exhibited diet sensitivity. Both groups participated in a supervised, six-week exercise program that included both aerobic and resistance exercises, performed three times per week. The investigators assessed the women’s body composition and metabolic markers and collected muscle tissue samples for biopsy.

They found that at the end of the six-week exercise program, the women who were diet resistant exhibited improved body composition and muscle metabolism and increased numbers of muscle mitochondria. The exercise program elicited only minimal effects in women who were diet sensitive. Interestingly, the diet-sensitive women exhibited risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome, suggesting that diet-sensitive obesity confers a greater risk for cardiometabolic disease.

These findings demonstrate that exercise promotes weight loss and metabolic health in women with obesity and diet resistance and may confer greater health benefits than rapid diet-induced weight loss. Learn more about the benefits of exercise in our overview article.

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