When it comes to weight loss, many people set goals based on time frames — to lose one pound a week, for example or a certain amount within six months — and that can be very helpful for staying motivated. But here’s one more reason to keep on track with your plan: You could be improving your health markers for years or even decades to come.
“As we age, the issues that come with excess weight tend to have a ripple effect,” says Stacy Brethauer, MD, obesity specialist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “You’re simply in higher risk categories across a range of conditions and that can stack up on top of each other, especially right now.” For example, you would elevate your risk of cardiovascular problems, which could then affect functions like respiration. That can set you up for both long-term issues as well as more immediate threats like COVID-19.
“The good news is that when you lose weight, it begins to streamline many of the body’s functions so they work better together,” Brethauer says. “Even if you don’t reach your goal weight, losing just 5–10 percent if you’re overweight can have profound effects. In the same way that problems can stack on each other, so can benefits.” Here are some major long-term advantages that you may see with weight loss:
Excess weight raises inflammation levels in the body, says Brethauer, and that can increase inflammatory cytokines, which are small proteins released during an infection.
If it’s in the short-term, that’s a helpful process, but similar to the way chronic stress can wear you down instead of preparing you for threats, long-term inflammation can reduce the effectiveness of your immune system. That’s one of the reasons obesity is a risk factor for COVID-19 complications, Brethauer says.
“Your immune system is not like a switch that’s turned off and on,” he adds. “It’s like a complicated machine you can improve with maintenance or hurt through neglect. As it becomes more streamlined and efficient, it can handle issues faster and more effectively.”
Focusing on getting the system running properly through good health habits can help you prevent disease in meaningful ways, Brethauer says.
In a small study, done on women who lost weight as a result of bariatric surgery, researchers found participants performed better on executive function tests after the procedure. These tests measure ability with planning and organizing.
One of the study’s authors, Cinita Cercato, MD, PhD, of the University of Sao Paulo, says that’s likely associated with how the brain metabolizes sugar. In people who are overweight or obese, this process happens at a higher rate, which can raise the level of inflammation. Whether you lose weight through surgery, non-surgical methods, or both, this process begins to normalize.
“Long-term, you’ll be lowering your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, since you’ll be changing the processes in the brain often related to those conditions,” says Cercato.
Increasingly, younger people are developing metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that can increase likelihood of developing several serious conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and sleep apnea. The syndrome includes five factors: elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, low HDL cholesterol, and a large waistline.
A recent research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association notes that about half of all adults over age 60 have the issue, but that the rate for those under 40 is surging — at this point, about 20 percent struggle with problems related to metabolic syndrome.
Although the effects of the syndrome can take years to develop, the researchers noted that the longer you have the issue, the more likely you’d be to develop chronic problems. But the good news is that focusing on the issue through healthy lifestyle habits can make a major difference, according to Joana Araujo, PhD, in the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina.
“Often, we see that changing just a couple habits can affect others,” she says. “For example, eating more fruits and vegetables and quitting smoking can lead to having more energy for physical activity. It all begins to add up.”
In the same way it helps to think of lifelong benefits to stay motivated for weight loss, it can also be useful to see your habits as lifelong as well.
Rather than falling into the short-term diet mentality, the shift toward establishing habits can be powerful, says Mitesh Patel, MD, a researcher at Penn Medicine who studies behavior change strategies, particularly around physical activity.
“You need to see your everyday habits as part of your behavior, so it becomes automatic,” he says. “People tend to do best when they have a larger health strategy, and then change small aspects of it in an enjoyable way that’s easy to do going forward.”
For example, exercising at about the same time every day, finding workouts you truly love, making cooking into a fun activity instead of a chore, being dedicated to a bedtime schedule that ensures you’ll get at least 7–9 hours of sleep, and focusing on de-stress tactics. All of these can help with weight loss, but most of all, they can also foster a strong sense of taking care of yourself in a meaningful way that makes weight loss into a happy side effect rather than the primary focus.
“It can be challenging to tie your behaviors right now to your future self, but they are absolutely connected,” says Patel. “Start now, and you’ll reap the benefits for years to come.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
While weight loss can have important short-term effects on your health it can also have transformative long-term benefits, too. Looking at your healthy living plan as a lifestyle change instead of a diet is key to creating healthy habits that stick.
Make progress every day while you work on mini fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps or learning to track macros. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.