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Debunking the Weight Loss Myth: Fitness and Health Beyond the Scales

In the realm of obesity treatment, a persistent narrative suggests that weight loss is the ultimate solution for improving health outcomes. However, this perspective is not only oversimplified but also potentially harmful. As an eating disorder physiotherapist, it’s crucial to challenge this misconception and highlight the importance of fitness and physical activity, regardless of weight loss.

The Real Culprit: Fitness Over Weight

Recent research underscores that the health benefits associated with weight loss are often actually due to increased physical activity and improved fitness levels. A comprehensive study published in iScience argues that cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) and regular physical activity (PA) can significantly reduce obesity-related health risks, independent of weight loss. This means that even without shedding kilos, engaging in consistent physical activity can enhance cardiometabolic health, reduce mortality risk, and improve overall quality of life​ (ScienceDaily)​​ (MDPI)​.

Image credit: Gaesser et al. 2021

The Causal Fallacy: Correlation vs. Causation

The idea that weight loss directly improves health outcomes falls into the trap of the causal fallacy, specifically the false cause fallacy. This fallacy occurs when it’s assumed that because two things occur together, one must cause the other. In this case, the correlation between weight loss and improved health is often misinterpreted. The actual causative factors are increased fitness and better muscle composition, not the weight loss itself​ (ScienceDaily)​.

Broader Research Insights

Additional studies reinforce this perspective. Research from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health highlights that physical activity improves a variety of health markers—such as cardiovascular health, metabolic function, and mental well-being—independent of weight loss. This indicates that the primary focus should be on promoting physical activity rather than merely reducing weight​ (MDPI)​.

Moreover, a review published in Obesity Reviews concludes that improving CRF through regular exercise significantly reduces the risk of chronic diseases and mortality, regardless of changes in body weight. This further supports the argument that fitness is a more critical factor for health than weight loss alone​ (MDPI)​.

Cardiorespiratory Fitness, Body Mass Index, and Mortality Risk

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence in this discussion is the joint analysis of cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF), body mass index (BMI), and mortality risk. The meta-analyses of Barry et al. (2014, 2018) reveal that individuals with higher CRF levels have lower all-cause and cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality rates, regardless of their BMI category. The data, illustrated in Figure 2, show that being fit significantly reduces mortality risk across all weight categories, with fit individuals having notably lower hazard ratios compared to their unfit counterparts. This highlights that fitness, not weight, is the key determinant of health outcomes​ (MDPI)​.

Image credit: Gaesser et al. 2021

The Harm of Weight-Centric Approaches

Emphasising weight loss can be particularly detrimental for individuals with eating disorders. It reinforces harmful societal pressures and can lead to disordered eating behaviours. Instead, promoting a holistic approach that prioritises joyful movement and fitness can help foster a healthier relationship with one’s body and improve overall well-being.

Moving Forward: A Weight-Neutral Strategy

While the evidence strongly suggests a shift towards a weight-neutral approach in treating obesity and related conditions, it’s important to acknowledge that the research is still evolving. More studies are needed to fully understand the complex relationships between physical activity, fitness, weight, and health outcomes. By prioritising physical activity and fitness, healthcare providers can help patients achieve better health outcomes without the undue focus on the scales. This strategy not only aligns better with the goals of those dealing with eating disorders but also promotes a more inclusive and supportive healthcare environment.


It's time to shift our approach to obesity treatment away from the narrow focus on weight loss and towards embracing the comprehensive benefits of physical activity. Challenging fat bias in our medical systems and society while promoting fitness and joyful movement will pave the way for healthier, more inclusive care. I strongly advocate for all bodies, of all shapes and sizes, to be able to move in a way that is fun, enjoyable, and leads to positive health outcomes. We need to stop harming our friends, patients, and colleagues by suggesting that weight loss is the answer to everything. Health is more than a number measured in kgs, we know this. So let's stop using weight as a proxy for health, this is once again our fat bias coming into play.

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