UMass Medical School Professor co-authors study in Science magazine’s special edition on obesity

February 6, 2003

WORCESTER, Mass. -- George W. Reed, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has co-authored a paper that indicates as little as 15 minutes of extra walking a day, or leaving just a few bites of food on the plate at each meal, may be enough to stop weight gain in most people.

The paper “Obesity and the Environment: Where Do We Go From Here?” was co-authored with James O. Hill and Holly R. Wyatt of the University of Colorado and John C. Peters of Proctor & Gamble Co. It appears today in Science magazine’s edition that focuses on obesity.  “We all understand that losing weight is an important goal,” Reed said. “What we’ve done with this work is to see what it takes to at least get people to stop gaining weight, and thereby avoid the medical problems that might result if they continued to gain weight.”

Reed, who works in UMass Medical School’s Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine , specializes in applied statistical methods and modeling, and has published widely in the areas of nutrition and energy metabolism.  In the research that appears today (Feb.7)  in Science, Reed analyzed eight years of weight data gathered on 40,000 adults and children across the United States through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1988 through 1994 and then from 1999 to 2000. The data confirmed what is already well known, that Americans are growing increasingly obese. What Reed and his colleagues did, however, was to  dig deeper into the data and develop some information that could help people make significant changes in their future weight profile without major alterations in their lifestyles.

Reed found that during the eight-year period studied Americans gained between 1.8 and 2 pounds per year on average. Using statistical models based on the weight change between the two NHANES’ studies, Reed projected the NHANES data out to the year 2008 and found that without any significant changes in people’s habits 39% of the United States population will be obese by then, up from 23% in 1994 time period. In basic terms, people gain weight when they ingest more fuel (food) than their body burns off during their daily activities.  Reed and his colleagues call that difference the “energy gap.”  So long as an “energy gap” exists for an individual, that person will continue to gain weight over time.

Based on NHANES and supporting data, Reed developed formulae to estimate how much the average person is over-eating and how much additional physical activity (or how much less food intake) would be required on a daily basis to close the “energy gap” and prevent additional weight gain.  “By our calculations, it doesn’t take much to at least prevent further weight gain,” Reed said. “It doesn’t take drastic diets or hours on the treadmill every day. It can be done with measures nearly anyone can incorporate into this fast-paced life.”

What it takes, the researchers found, is about 2,000 to 2,500 extra steps each day for most adults to close the “energy gap” and prevent additional weight gain without changing their diet.  “What’s important to keep in mind is those steps don’t have to be taken all at once,” Reed says. “You can fit them in at different times of your day and still get the benefit.” For those not prone to additional walking, Reed said the data indicate that if people leave the equivalent of three regular bites of a calorie-dense food (like a hamburger or stack of pancakes)  on their plate, without changing their typical portion size, then that may be enough to keep their weight stable.

The theory developed by Reed and his colleagues is now being put to the test in the “Colorado on the Move” project. Inspired by the work of Hill and Wyatt at the University of Colorado, the state launched the program to encourage people to take extra steps each day for the health benefits that accrue.  Leaders in Colorado, including the governor, are urging residents to use step meters or pedometers (which cost less than $20), to monitor how many steps they take in a day, then to take actions to increase that number, such as parking at the far end of the lot when shopping or going to work, or walking up stairs rather than riding the elevator.  (For more information see .).  “If we see the results we expect to in Colorado, it’s something we can try to replicate here in Massachusetts and across the country,” Reed said.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of the fastest growing academic health centers in the country, has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research.  The Medical School attracts more than $143 million in research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources.  Research funding enables UMMS scientists to explore human disease from the molecular level to large-scale clinical trials.  Basic and clinical research leads to new approaches for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease.

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Michael Cohen, 508-856-2000