Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Real Biggest Losers?

Clues from the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR)

A number of my recent posts have focused on the related problems of inactivity and obesity.   Losing weight is a hard thing to do and in this post I want to touch on a few things associated with big time sustained weight loss.

Weight loss is hard, studies show that it is possible for many people to lose about 10% of their body weight in structured programs but over the next several years most (about 90%) regain the weight.  It is pretty easy to focus on why people regain the weight they have lost and there are all sorts of reasons to explain it, but what about the people who keep the weight off?

The NWCR is open to people over 18 who have lost at least 30 pounds (14kg) and kept it off for at least a year and there is data on more than 10,000 successful long term “losers”.  The NWCR site also has some interesting case stories that might be of use for people struggling to lose weight and/or maintain their weight loss.

Here are a few key findings from the NWCR web site.

  • 80% of persons in the registry are women and 20% are men. The “average” woman is 45 years of age and currently weighs 145 lbs, while the “average” man is 49 years of age and currently weighs 190 lbs.

  • Registry members have lost an average of 66 lbs and kept it off for 5.5 years. These averages, however, hide a lot of diversity:
    • Weight losses have ranged from 30 to 300 lbs.
    • Duration of successful weight loss has ranged from 1 year to 66 years!
    • Some have lost the weight rapidly, while others have lost weight very slowly–over as many as 14 years.


  • 45% of registry participants lost the weight on their own and the other 55% lost weight with the help of some type of program.

  • 98% of Registry participants report that they modified their food intake in some way to lose weight.

  • 94% increased their physical activity, with the most frequently reported form of activity being walking.

  • There is variety in how NWCR members keep the weight off. Most report continuing to maintain a low calorie, low fat diet and doing high levels of activity.
    • 78% eat breakfast every day.
    • 75% weigh themselves at least once a week.
    • 62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week.
    • 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.


What I find interesting is that people who lose a lot of weight and keep it off are exercising about an hour a day.  They also appear to be extremely vigilant about their body weight.   There is a link to all of the scientific research the NWCR has generate on the web site for those interested in even more data.

When I look at some of the numbers associated with physical activity and the obesity epidemic presented in the earlier posts, the NWCR “biggest losers” would seem to be at the upper end of the guidelines for physical activity.   So not getting fat is dependent on high levels physical activity and successful weight loss is dependent on high levels of physical activity.

The other point I want to emphasize is that it is possible for people to regain control of various elements of their lives.  It is never too late to be proactive.  To emphasize this point, the next section of this post was written by Sheila Ray who is a former co-worker and a successful “loser” and is now a personal fitness trainer and fitness boot camp instructor with her own small business, Reforming U.


Sheila Ray’s Weight Loss Summary

It wasn’t until I was 25 that my 5’8” body began to creep into an unhealthy weight range when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation were physically and mentally difficult. I was fatigued, which meant I was 100% inactive. I was also warned not to lose weight, so I continued to eat. This was a disastrous combination and I slowly ballooned to 221 pounds, where I stayed for several years.

In 2002, I decided to jump on the “low carb” craze and lost 37 pounds, bringing me down to 184. I didn’t incorporate exercise until after this weight loss, when I began to exercise regularly. There was a problem though. I didn’t realize how strong I was. I didn’t push myself. I became too comfortable with my exercise routine and didn’t see continued results. I also found I couldn’t sustain the “low carb” diet and went back to eating the way I used to eat. Although I stayed faithful to my exercise program, I slowly added weight back on over the next five years and found myself back at 197 pounds.

In early 2008, I began to learn more about health and wellness. I educated myself on a well-balanced life, including healthy, whole nutrition, as well as effective and safe exercise programs. I took control of my life and created happiness like I’ve never experienced before. I cleaned up my diet by eliminating processed foods, laden with chemicals and artificial ingredients, and took control of my daily calorie intake.

I also discovered my strength and began to push myself in my workouts, seeing positive results. I discovered change is not comfortable and I had been comfortable for far too long. I also found my self-pride and self-confidence, because I could do things I never knew possible.

Over six months during 2008, I dropped 40 pounds, which I have been able to maintain. In order to maintain this weight loss, I continue to be aware of the number of calories I consume and burn each day.  While I may not be as vigilant as I was during my weight loss phase, I do have a solid understanding of the amount of food and activity I need for that delicate maintenance balance.  I eat three well-balanced meals, starting with breakfast within 30 minutes of waking.  I also eat one to two snacks between meals, ensuring I do not go more than four hours without eating during the day.  I weigh myself often and use clothing as a guide.  I exercise four to six days per week, mainly utilizing interval training, with bursts of high intensity activity mixed with active recovery.  My passion is helping others achieve the happiness I have.








4 Responses to “Real Biggest Losers?”

  1. August 30th, 2012 at 6:48 am

    Real Biggest Losers? | Human Limits: Michael J. Joyner, M.D. | says:

    […] under Current Events, Research and Health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 […]

  2. August 31st, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    Carolyn Holcomb says:

    I knew about the battle with cancer, but I don’t think that I knew about the weight loss. You are such an overcomer of adversity!

  3. September 1st, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Teresa Thomas says:

    This is an inspirational story. Wow! I need to start eating more healthy as well to prevent any adverse medical issues to creep up in my body anymore, than what I have now. If you can assist me with this matter, I’d greatly appreciate it. just send me a message here on face book, and I’ll get back to you. I need to change my way of life in so many areas of it, that it’s not even funny. So, all assistance, is welcomed. Look forward to hearing from you soon.

  4. September 1st, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Sandra DeHotman says:

    I had to start a new routine for eating because of my diabetes. I lost 30 lbs in a year and have maintained that weight now for 4 years. I did the same thing as you on the eating. I counted cars in what I ate and had 2-3 snacks (one about 2 hrs.after each meal) I eat good food and most snacks are fruit or low carb things like fig newtons (a couple are only 21 carbs.) Paying attention to what and how much you eat are a big help in losing weight. I didn’t go on a diet, I just changed the way I eat and how much I eat and have to give up none of my favorite snacks. I just have to compensate with less carbs at my meals. I found it is a good trade-off once in awhile. I don’t exercise as much as you, but I do walk a lot! Not bad for an old lady! lol So proud of those who lose a lot of weight and keep it off by good practices in their life!

Leave a Reply