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Obesity – reduces weight and BMI

Evidence summary

16 Systematic reviews and meta-analyses were identified that evaluated the effect of physical activity on weight and BMI in patients with BMI >25  [1-14]. The studies included in these articles are heterogenous in key aspects such as exercise interventions and mean BMI of the study population. Nevertheless, exercise at moderate to high intensity on its own appears to have a small to moderate effect on weight. 

A network meta-analysis of 45 studies with 3566 participants with an age range of 18-65 and BMI over 30 investigated the effect of exercise interventions that were longer than 8 weeks [15]. The effect of exercise on body weight was found to be small, with mean values ranging from −0.05 to −1.01 kg, with interventions that combined vigorous aerobic exercise with high-load resistance training the most effective (−1.01 kg (−2.71, −0.40)). BMI was reduced significantly as well in this group (-2.79 kg m−2 [CI = −5.95, −0.36]). Resistance training alone was not effective. This was supported by several other meta-analyses with similar results [4,12,16].  

A meta-analysis with an average participation in the exercise interventions of 22 weeks, 4 times per week for ~50 min at moderate to vigorous intensity, showed statistical significant reduction of weight in the 9 trials looking at overweight and obese individuals (d = −0.63 SMD (95% confidence interval (CI), −0.89–−0.36; p < 0.001; k = 9)) compared to overweight and obese individuals who did not participate in the exercise interventions [8]. Similar results were found in the 7 trials looked at for BMI (d = −0.50 SMD (95% CI, −0.78–−0.21; p < 0.001; k = 7)). Furthermore, Hsu et al demonstrated a reduction in body weight as a result of at least moderate intensity exercise (MD = −4.3 kg, 95% CI: −7.61, −0.99, p = 0.01; I2 = 0%) and BMI (MD = −1.98 kg/m2, 95% CI: −3.29, −0.67, p = 0.003, I2 = 0%) in a meta-analysis 7 studies of patients with sarcopenic obesity(12). Kim et al found a medium to large effect on exercise interventions on BMI (standardized mean difference [SMD], 0.533), with exercise duration (weeks of exercise) and intensity being the best correlators with improvement in obesity [13] 

A systematic review of 6 studies on older individuals (65+) did not find any significant differences in weight loss following exercise programmes of at least 6 months, but intensity was not detailed [10].  

Diet plays an important role in weight loss and may have a synergistic role with exercise. In a meta-analysis of 22 trials with a mean age of 35-70 and BMI of 25.6 and 38.2 kg/m2, where 3521 participants trained for at least 12 months at 50-85% their maximal heart rate, the addition of exercise to dieting resulted in a significantly more pronounced reduction in body weight [mean differences (MD): -1.38 kg, 95% confidence interval (CI) -1.98 to -0.79] [11].  

Diet together with exercise appears to be more effective in inducing body compositional changes than either exercise or diet alone [3].  The highest level of successful weight loss and weight maintenance programmes incorporated physical activity in a summary of 48 studies, including 30 RCTs [6]. 

Quality of evidence 

A: Consistent evidence from meta-analysis and systematic review 

Strength of recommendation 

1 – Small, but significant benefit, low risk of physical activity 


Exercise has a small but favourable effect on weight loss and BMI and works in synergy with diet in patients who are overweight or obese. A combination of high-intensity aerobic and high-load resistance training may be the most effective in reducing weight and/or BMI. The effect amongst older individuals is less clear. Duration of exercise programme and intensity appear to be the most important modulators of success. 


1. Johns DJ, Hartmann-Boyce J, Jebb SA, Aveyard P. Diet or exercise interventions vs combined behavioral weight management programs: a  systematic review and meta-analysis of direct comparisons. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 Oct;114(10):1557–68.  

2. Cai X, Qiu SH, Yin H, Sun ZL, Ju CP, Zügel M, et al. Pedometer intervention and weight loss in overweight and obese adults with Type 2  diabetes: a meta-analysis. Diabet Med. 2016 Aug;33(8):1035–44.  

3. Clark JE. Diet, exercise or diet with exercise: comparing the effectiveness of treatment  options for weight-loss and changes in fitness for adults (18-65 years old) who are overfat, or obese; systematic review and meta-analysis. J Diabetes Metab Disord. 2015;14:31.  

4. Morze J, Rücker G, Danielewicz A, Przybyłowicz K, Neuenschwander M, Schlesinger S, et al. Impact of different training modalities on anthropometric outcomes in patients with  obesity: A systematic review and network meta-analysis. Obes Rev  an Off J Int Assoc Study  Obes. 2021 Jul;22(7):e13218.  

5. Smart NA, King N, McFarlane JR, Graham PL, Dieberg G. Effect of exercise training on liver function in adults who are overweight or  exhibit fatty liver disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2018 Jul;52(13):834–43.  

6. Ramage S, Farmer A, Eccles KA, McCargar L. Healthy strategies for successful weight loss and weight maintenance: a systematic  review. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab = Physiol Appl Nutr  Metab. 2014 Jan;39(1):1–20.  

7. Su L, Fu J, Sun S, Zhao G, Cheng W, Dou C, et al. Effects of HIIT and MICT on cardiovascular risk factors in adults with overweight  and/or obesity: A meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2019;14(1):e0210644.  

8. Lee HS, Lee J. Effects of Exercise Interventions on Weight, Body Mass Index, Lean Body Mass and  Accumulated Visceral Fat in Overweight and Obese Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Mar;18(5).  

9. de Souza F, Lanzendorf FN, de Souza MMM, Schuelter-Trevisol F, Trevisol DJ. Effectiveness of martial arts exercise on anthropometric and body composition  parameters of overweight and obese subjects: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health. 2020 Aug;20(1):1246.  

10. Batsis JA, Gill LE, Masutani RK, Adachi-Mejia AM, Blunt HB, Bagley PJ, et al. Weight Loss Interventions in Older Adults with Obesity: A Systematic Review of  Randomized Controlled Trials Since 2005. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2017 Feb;65(2):257–68.  

11. Schwingshackl L, Dias S, Hoffmann G. Impact of long-term lifestyle programmes on weight loss and cardiovascular risk  factors in overweight/obese participants: a systematic review and network meta-analysis. Syst Rev. 2014 Oct;3:130.  

12. Hsu K-J, Liao C-D, Tsai M-W, Chen C-N. Effects of Exercise and Nutritional Intervention on Body Composition, Metabolic  Health, and Physical Performance in Adults with Sarcopenic Obesity: A Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2019 Sep;11(9).  

13. Kim K-B, Kim K, Kim C, Kang S-J, Kim HJ, Yoon S, et al. Effects of Exercise on the Body Composition and Lipid Profile of Individuals with  Obesity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Obes Metab Syndr. 2019 Dec;28(4):278–94.  

14. Gobbo S, Bullo V, Roma E, Duregon F, Bocalini DS, Rica RL, et al. Nordic Walking Promoted Weight Loss in Overweight and Obese People: A Systematic  Review for Future Exercise Prescription. J Funct Morphol Kinesiol. 2019 Jun;4(2).  

15. O’Donoghue G, Blake C, Cunningham C, Lennon O, Perrotta C. What exercise prescription is optimal to improve body composition and  cardiorespiratory fitness in adults living with obesity? A network meta-analysis. Obes Rev  an Off J Int Assoc Study  Obes. 2021 Feb;22(2):e13137.  

16. Schwingshackl L, Dias S, Strasser B, Hoffmann G. Impact of different training modalities on anthropometric and metabolic  characteristics in overweight/obese subjects: a systematic review and network meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2013;8(12):e82853.