Exercise and weight control

Why does weight matter?

Many people worry about their weight at some point during their life. Maybe you have struggled with your weight going up and down for years, or perhaps it increased following a difficult time in your life. If you’re overweight or obese, you’re not alone – about a quarter of all adults in the UK are obese. But being overweight or obese can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Not only that, it’s also linked to developing cancer and can cause joint problems and back pain. It can even be responsible for causing trouble sleeping and low self-esteem.

Why do I gain weight?

You gain weight if you consume more calories (energy) in food and drink than you burn up, mainly by physical activity. You can maintain a steady weight by using up the same number of calories as you take in. If you want to lose weight, you need to burn off more calories than you take in.

It’s easy to be less active than you should be. Spending too much time in front of the computer or TV, or doing an office-based job, can mean that you burn up less energy than you need to if you want to keep your weight stable or lose excess weight.

Calories taken in Calories used up  
3,000 2,500 Gain weight
3,000 3,500 Lose weight
3,000 3,000 Stable weight

In practice, it's difficult to monitor exactly how many calories you eat and drink. One way to make sure you’re getting it right is to keep an eye on your weight and aim to keep your body mass index (BMI) within the healthy range (18.5 to 24.9). BMI is a measure of whether you’re a healthy weight for your height and gives an indicator of how much body fat you have. However, it doesn't apply to everybody – for example, if you have a lot of muscle, you may have a BMI over 25 but very little body fat. Similarly, if you have very little muscle, you may still have too much body fat, even though your BMI is in the healthy range. Try our online BMI calculator to see if you’re a healthy weight.

Another way to tell if you’re a healthy weight is to check your waist size. Carrying excess fat around your abdomen (tummy) and waist is thought to be worse for your health than if you store it around your thighs and bottom. Your health may be at risk if you're a man with a waist measurement of 94cm (37 inches) or more, or a woman with a waist measurement of 80cm (32 inches) or more.

Why is exercise important?

It’s no secret that physical activity is good for you. In fact, there is evidence to show that being inactive may actually be worse for your health than being overweight. This means that if you’re overweight and don’t do any exercise, you’re at a much greater risk of serious health problems than someone who is also overweight but who does regular physical activity. Not doing any physical activity puts you at risk of all the same diseases that are caused by obesity. Therefore, keeping active can improve your health by reducing your risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. It can also lower high blood pressure and raise levels of ‘good’ cholesterol, as well as making you feel happier and increasing your self-esteem.

Physical activity and obesity are linked because your weight is determined to some extent by how active you are. So if you start exercising to improve your health, you’re also likely to lose weight, and increase the health benefits even more.

If you’re overweight, even losing a small amount is beneficial for your health. The best way to lose excess weight is to combine a healthy, balanced diet with regular exercise. Physical activity burns calories, so the more you do, the more weight you will lose. Exercising as part of your weight loss plan means you will lose fat without any loss of lean tissue, which is mainly muscle.

Get moving

Aim to lose weight gradually – about 0.5 to 1kg (one to two pounds) per week is realistic. As well as exercising regularly, it’s likely you will need to reduce your overall calorie intake. If you’re a woman, aim for about 1,500 calories and 1,800 if you’re a man. But don’t do this by skipping meals as your body will respond by storing fat to prevent against starvation. Instead, eat regular, smaller meals.

If you’re carrying a lot of extra weight, you may find you lose weight quickly in the first few months – don’t be disheartened if the rate slows down as time goes on. As you start to exercise you may find that your weight goes up at first because you put on muscle before you lose fat.

All adults should do 30 minutes of moderate exercise on five or more days a week. But if you’re trying to lose excess weight, you may need to do more than this – maybe 45 to 60 minutes a day. And you still need to keep up the exercise once you have lost weight, with about 60 to 90 minutes of activity a day to stop you putting it back on.

Sounds like a lot? Don’t worry, you don’t have to do it all in one go to get the benefits – in fact, it may actually be better to break up the time throughout the day. If you haven’t exercised for a while or find this amount of exercise daunting, start by splitting up the daily 30 minutes into three sessions, each lasting 10 minutes. As you become stronger and more energetic you can gradually build up how much you do in one go. One thing to remember though is that there may not be any benefit to exercising for longer than 30 minutes at a time. That means it’s better to exercise for 30 minutes more often than doing more than 30 minutes less frequently.

Top tips for getting active

You can make it easier to achieve your daily exercise target by building activity into your everyday life and not always seeing it as something extra to fit in. Walking more is a good way of doing this and also doesn’t cost anything. Try walking to the shops instead of driving or taking the stairs instead of the lift.

It’s important that you reduce the amount of time you spend sitting still. Watching TV, driving, playing on the computer or sitting at a desk burn up very few calories.

Combine aerobic training that burns fat, such as running, with resistance exercise such as weight training that builds muscle.

Calorie counting

How many calories you burn up during exercise will depend on your body weight, age, fitness levels and the type of activity you do. The table below shows the average number of calories a person weighing 60kg burns up when doing different types of exercise for 30 minutes.

Type of activity Calories burned up in 30 minutes
Ironing 69
Cleaning and dusting 75
Painting and decorating 90
Golf 129
Brisk walking 150
Cycling 180
Running (10 minutes/mile) 300
Running (7.5 minutes/mile) 405

Changing behaviour

You may find that some days it’s harder to exercise than others. There are a number of things you can do to help keep you motivated.

  • Make exercise enjoyable – doing activity with a friend or listening to music can help.
  • Take different routes when cycling, walking or jogging. This will help to make your activity more interesting and stop you from getting bored.
  • Keep a diary of your activity and you will see your progress and how much you have achieved.
  • Set long- and short-term goals, and reward yourself when you reach them.

Once you start to lose weight and become more active, you will find that you can do more at a higher intensity. It’s important that you carry on being physically active and keep eating a healthy diet after you have lost weight to make sure that it stays off for good.

Action points

  • Aim to keep your body weight within the healthy range for your height.
  • If you’re overweight, you will need to do more than the recommended target of 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity on five or more days a week.
  • Combine doing more exercise with eating smaller meals for the safest and most effective way to lose weight.


Produced by Polly Kerr, Bupa Health Information Team, October 2012.

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