By Daniel G. Amen, MD

There is no shortage of research on the effects of exercise on fat loss. Decades of scientific evidence has found that exercise, when combined with a healthy eating plan, can help you lose the blubber and keep it off. Of course, exercise burns calories, which is one of the keys to weight loss and a trimmer figure. But burning calories isn’t the only way that exercise can help you trim your waist. Check out these exercise benefits.

Turn off the obesity gene. Exciting new research out of Sweden shows that exercise can deactivate the “obesity gene.” Haven’t heard of the obesity gene? Scientists have identified a gene variant, known in scientific circles as FTO rs9939609, that predisposes people to obesity. A person can have no copies, one copy, or two copies of the gene variant, and your likelihood of obesity increases with the number of copies you have.

According to the Swedish study, having one copy of the gene variant is associated with a higher BMI, greater body fat percentage, and larger waist circumference compared to those with no copies of the gene. Having two copies of the gene variant is associated with even higher BMI, body fat, and waist size.

What is so exciting about this study, which analyzed data from 752 European adolescents, is that those who had the gene variant but got at least 60 minutes daily of moderate to vigorous activity were no more likely to be overweight than those who had no copies. So even if you are genetically loaded to have a weight problem, you can blunt the effects of your genetic makeup.

Your genes are NOT your destiny.

Improve how your brain uses fats. Exercise increases your brain’s ability to regulate insulin and sugar. Maintaining blood sugar stability is critical. If you’re insulin sensitive and you exercise, your body can handle sugar and insulin much better and you’ll get off that blood sugar roller coaster.

Reduce cravings and overcome food addiction. New research shows that exercise is helpful in the prevention and treatment of addiction, including food addiction. Physical activity actually reduces cravings for addictive foods like sugary sweets and high-calorie, high-fat fare. When you eliminate your cravings, it can cut out hundreds—or for some people, thousands—of calories from your daily diet.

Handle stress better. Working out helps you manage stress by immediately lowering stress hormones, and it makes you more resistant to stress over time. Raising your heart rate through exercise also makes you a better stress handler because it raises beta-endorphins, the brain’s own natural morphine. Increasing your ability to manage stress can keep you from polishing off a whole bag of chips when you are under a lot of pressure.

Eat healthier foods. A 2008 study found that being physically active makes you more inclined to choose foods that are good for you, seek out more social support, and manage stress more effectively. As you are learning in this book, all of these factors can help you rein in out-of-control eating so you can lose weight.

Obviously, choosing brain healthy foods over junk food provides the foundation for lasting weight loss. Creating a solid support network to encourage your new brain healthy habits can help you stay on track. And as explained above, getting a handle on stress is one of the keys to staying on track.

Get more restful sleep. Engaging in exercise on a routine basis normalizes melatonin production in the brain and improves sleeping habits. Getting better sleep improves brain function, helps you make better decisions about the foods you eat, and enhances your mood. Chronic lack of sleep nearly doubles your risk for obesity and is linked to depression and a sluggish brain.

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