Image: General over view at Germany's highest mountain, Zugspitze
Michaela Rehle  /  Reuters file
Doctors took 20 obese men up to a research station on Germany's highest mountain Zugspitze for a week. The guys felt less hungry and lost weight.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/4/2010 9:50:50 AM ET 2010-02-04T14:50:50

Overweight people may want to vacation in the mountains rather than at the beach — and not just to avoid putting on a swimsuit.

At least that’s the conclusion of a new German study, which found that a group of 20 obese men lost weight during a one-week stay at a high altitude — then kept it off for at least four weeks afterward.

During their stay on Germany’s highest mountain, the men didn’t up their physical activity and they weren’t put on a diet. Still, the men didn’t eat as much — reducing their calories by 734 calories to about 2,200 calories a day. Their diastolic blood pressure dipped while their metabolism climbed and they lost an average of 3.3 pounds each, according to the study, published Thursday in the journal Obesity.

People often don't feel as hungry at higher elevations; in fact, lack of appetite and nausea are usually the first symptoms of altitude sickness.

What's more surprising is that even after returning home to regular elevations, the guys kept the weight off, at least for the month they were tracked. That's likely because they were able to exercise more thanks to the blood oxygen boost gained upon returning to level land.

No magic bullet
“They were not as exhausted as they moved,’’ said Dr. Florian Lippl, the lead author and a gastroenterologist at the hospital at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.  

Obesity experts cautioned that the German study’s sample size was very small.  And Dr. David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, said that changing elevation "is not a magic bullet.’’

While obese patients may experience a temporary boon from an elevation hike, if they remained at a high altitude, they would adjust to conditions and resume unhealthy habits, Heber said.

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions worldwide. In the U.S., obesity rates more than doubled to 34 percent among adults, and more than tripled to 17 percent among children and adolescents, from 1980 to 2008.

Fit in Colorado
Notably, Colorado, famous for its mile-high elevations, has the lowest adult obesity rate in the U.S., at 19 percent.

Eric Aakko, director of the state’s physical activity and nutrition program, says that probably has more to do with the state’s recreation opportunities, high income and education levels and good access to fresh fruits and vegetables than its high altitude.

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The German study may have parallels in athletic training, says Rodger Kram, a physiologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Lesson from athletes
Endurance athletes come to live at high altitudes, and, with the lower oxygen, build more red blood cells, he said. “When they return to sea level, they can deliver more oxygen to their working muscles, so they have greater endurance,’’ he said. That effect diminishes over time, he said.

Some athletes even sleep in high-altitude simulation tents while at sea level, Kram noted. “It would be interesting to see,’’ he said, if a similar method could be used for reducing appetite — and losing pounds.

Lippl, author of the German study, said the research was prompted by the difficulty in motivating obese people to exercise more.

The 20 men replied to a newspaper ad for the study and were brought to a research station on Zugspitze, a mountain in the Alps, at an altitude of 2,600 meters, or 1.6 miles high.

Levels of physical activity were kept the same as at lower altitude, but the men had no restrictions on diet. Still, their weight loss was significant, researchers found. Their body weight dropped from an average of 231.7 pounds to 228.4 during the week.

When the group returned to low altitude in Munich, they maintained their lower food intake but increased their physical activity.

Lippl said that future research may study the effects at even higher elevations — he’s considering a mountain in Italy — and whether obese people can keep the weight off for six months after they return to lower altitude.

Meanwhile, Lippl said, he recommends against a seaside vacation for obese patients at his clinic. His advice? “Have a mountain holiday — it’s better for you.’’

Andy Miller is an Atlanta-based freelance journalist. His work has been published by WebMD, AOL's WalletPop and AARP. He was a longtime staff writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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