Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Vigorous exercise and the population distribution of body weight


BACKGROUND: While the benefits of vigorous exercise on body weight and regional adiposity are well established, whether these benefits affect equally the highest and lowest portions of the weight distribution have not been previously reported. The impact of exercise on the more extreme body weights and body circumferences is clinically important because these values represent individuals at greatest health risk.

Method: Self-reported weights and body circumferences from a cross-sectional sample of 7288 male and 2326 female runners were divided into five strata, according to the distances run per week and within each stratum the 5th, 10th, 25th, 50th, 75th, 90th and 95th percentiles were determined. Least-squares regression was then employed at each percentile to determine the dose–response relationship between running distance and adiposity as determined by body mass index (BMI) and self-reported circumferences of the waist, hip and chest.

RESULTS: Per kilometer run per week, the associated decline for BMI was three-fold greater at the 95th than at the 5th percentile in men, and six-fold greater at the 95th than the 5th percentile in women (all P<0.001). Reported waist circumference also declined more sharply at the 95th percentile than at the 5th percentile in men (−0.13±0.02 vs −0.06±0.01 cm per km/week) and women (−0.18±0.04 vs −0.05±0.01 cm per km/week). In women, both hip and chest circumferences declined more sharply per kilometer run at the 95th percentile than at the 5th percentile.

Conclusions: These results are consistent with the hypothesis that running promotes the greatest weight loss specifically in those individuals who have the most to gain from losing weight. Comparisons based on average BMI or average body circumferences are likely to underestimate the health benefits of running because of the J-shaped relationship between adiposity and mortality. Whether the observed cross-sectional associations are primarily due to exercise-induced weight loss or self-selection remains to be determined.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1
Figure 2


  1. Williams PT . Relationship of distance run per week to coronary heart disease risk factors in 8,283 male runners. The National Runners' Health Study. Arch Intern Med 1997; 157: 191–198.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Williams PT . High density lipoprotein cholesterol and other risk factors for coronary heart disease in female runners. N Engl J Med 1996; 334: 1298–1303.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Williams PT, Wood PD, Haskell WL, Vranizan K . The effects of running mileage and duration on plasma lipoprotein levels. JAMA 1982; 247: 2674–2679.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Wood PD, Stefanick ML, Dreon DM, Frey-Hew HB, Garay SC, Williams PT, Superko HR, Fortmann SP, Acbers JJ, Vranizan KM . Changes in plasma lipids and lipoproteins in overweight men during weight loss through dieting as compared with exercise. N Eng J Med 1988; 319: 1173–1179.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Wood PD, Stefanick ML, Williams PT, Haskell WL . The effects on plasma lipoproteins of a prudent weight-reducing diet, with or without exercise, in overweight men and women. N Engl J Med 1991; 325: 461–466.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Rothwell PM . Can overall results of clinical trials be applied to all patients? Lancet 1995; 345: 1616–1619.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Bailey KR . Generalizing the results of randomized clinical trials. Control Clin Trials 1994; 15: 15–23.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Yusuf S, Wittes J, Probstfield J, Tyroler HA . Analysis and interpretation of treatment effects in subgroups of patients in randomized clinical trials. JAMA 1991; 266: 93–98.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Ioannidis JP, Lau J . The impact of high-risk patients on the results of clinical trials. J Clin Epidemiol 1997; 50: 1089–1098.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Williams PT, Stefanick ML, Vranizan KM, Wood PD . The effects of weight loss by exercise or by dieting on plasma high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels in men with low, intermediate, and normal-to-high HDL at baseline. Metabolism 1994; 43: 917–924.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Sudi KM, Gallistl S, Tafeit E, Moller R, Borkenstein MH . The relationship between different subcutaneous adipose tissue layers, fat mass and leptin in obese children and adolescents. J Pediatr Endocrinol Metab 2000; 13: 505–512.

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Houmard JA, McCulley C, Roy LK, Bruner RK, McCammon MR, Israel RG . Effects of exercise training on absolute and relative measurements of regional adiposity. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1994; 18: 243–248.

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  13. Pouliot MC, Despres JP, Moorjani S, Tremblay A, Lupien PJ, Nadeau A, Theriault G, Bouchard C . Computed tomography-measured trunk fat and plasma lipoprotein levels in nonobese women. Metabolism 1989; 38: 1244–1250.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Efron B . The Jackknife, the bootstrap and other resampling plans. Society for industrial and applied mathematics. Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics: Philadelphia, PA; 1982. pp 1–92.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Tsugane S, Sasaki S, Tsubono Y . Under- and overweight impact on mortality among middle-aged Japanese men and women: a 10-y follow-up of JPHC study cohort I. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2002; 26: 529–537.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Troiano RP, Frongillo Jr EA, Sobal J, Levitsky DA . The relationship between body weight and mortality: a quantitative analysis of combined information from existing studies. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1996; 20: 63–75.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Jonsson S, Hedblad B, Engstrom G, Nilsson P, Berglund G, Janzon L . Influence of obesity on cardiovascular risk. Twenty-three-year follow-up of 22025 men from an urban Swedish population. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2002; 26: 1046–1053.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Calle EE, Thun MJ, Petrelli OM, Rodriguez C, Heath CW . Body-mass index and mortality in a prospective cohort of US adults. N Engl J Med 1999; 341: 1097–1105.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Després JP, Moorjani S, Lupien PJ, Tremblay A, Nadeau A, Bouchard C . Regional distribution of body fat, plasma lipoproteins, and cardiovascular disease. Arteriosclerosis 1990; 10: 497–511.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Kissebah AH, Krakower GR . Regional adiposity and morbidity. Physiol Rev 1994; 74: 761–811.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Lakka HM, Lakka TA, Tuomilehto J, Salonen JT . Abdominal obesity is associated with increased risk of acute coronary events in men. Eur Heart J 2002; 23: 706–713.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Oppert JM, Charles MA, Thibult N, Guy-Grand B, Eschwege E, Ducimetiere P . Anthropometric estimates of muscle and fat mass in relation to cardiac and cancer mortality in men: the Paris Prospective Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2002; 75: 1107–1113.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Supported by Grant HL-058621 from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, and was conducted at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (Department of Energy DE-AC03-76SF00098 to the University of California).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to P T Williams.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Williams, P. Vigorous exercise and the population distribution of body weight. Int J Obes 28, 120–128 (2004).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • exercise
  • running
  • physical activity
  • body mass index
  • waist circumference
  • hip circumference
  • chest circumference

Further reading


Quick links