Steve Connor: Gain height and you might lose weight

Science Notebook: You can get rid of pounds by simply living on a mountain for a few weeks

The weight-loss industry is big business in an age when obesity seems to be the post-modern condition, but of all the different ways of shedding fat this one is probably the most pleasant. Scientists have shown that you can get rid of pounds of unwanted adipose tissue by simply living on a mountain for a few weeks.

We're not talking about winter Olympic exercise here, or even walking around more than you would at sea level. A study has shown that simply being at high altitude, even if you continue eating as much as you want, can lead to a significant loss of weight.

Florian Lippl of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich took 20 obese men to an environmental research station sited 2,650m above sea level, about 300m below the summit of mount Zugspitze on the German/Austrian border. The men were taken there by cog railway and cable car so the trip involved no strenuous physical activity. They were also issued with pedometers to make sure they did not walk more than normal.

At the end of one week the men, whose average starting weight was 105kg, had lost about 1.5kg each. That may not seem much, but given that the weight loss was in just one week, it was pretty impressive. Even more impressive was that their blood pressure also dropped and there was a corresponding rise in levels of the hormone leptin, which is linked with appetite. Normally leptin levels fall when food intake decreases.

The men certainly ate less because loss of appetite often happens at high altitudes, but this could not account for all of the weight loss, according to Lippl. The reason for the extra weight loss probably comes down to increased body metabolism because of the thinner mountain air – lower oxygen levels causes the heart to beat faster.

A major problem with this study was that it did not include a corresponding group of obese men who were subjected to a similar investigation at sea level. Nevertheless, despite the lack of a control group, the findings are food for thought. Perhaps sleeping in a hypobaric chamber may become the new dieting.

Star-gazing meets stand-up

The post of President of the Royal Society becomes vacant in November, when the term of the current president, Lord Rees of Ludlow comes to an end. Lord Rees is probably better known as Martin Rees, the popular science writer, master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Astronomer Royal.

Martin was on top form last week at the annual "science meets the media" party at the Royal Society and is evidently looking forward to his next career as a deadpan stand-up comic. One of my favourite Rees-isms was when I once asked him about what he actually does as Astronomer Royal. "My boy," he said, "the duties of an Astronomer Royal are so exiguous that one could perform them posthumously."

Hot tip for next President of the Royal Society – Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and all-round good egg.

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