7 Best exercises for weight loss
LAST UPDATED: Feb 07, 2023
6 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
Over 73% of American adults are classified as being overweight or obese, as defined by body mass index (BMI) (CDC, 2022). While BMI leaves much to be desired as a measurement of health, being overweight or obese can lead to some serious health problems, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and strokes.
Almost half of American adults try to lose weight each year (Martin, 2018). If you’re one of those people, you’ve probably been told that the best way to lose weight is diet and exercise–and this is true (to an extent). Medical conditions, side effects of medications, and more may be the root of some people’s weight gain and should be addressed by a healthcare provider. However, the underlying principle of weight loss is to eat fewer calories than you use. In other words, you need to be in a calorie deficit. You may be able to accomplish this by eating fewer calories (while still consuming a healthy amount of food), burning more calories (by exercising), or a combination of both.
If you and your healthcare provider agree that weight loss is a healthy goal for you, you may wonder–what is the best exercise for weight loss? While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, cardio, high intensity interval training, strength training, and more are good options. Continue reading to learn more about the best exercise for weight loss.
Fad diets stop here
If appropriate, get effective weight loss treatment prescribed for your body.
The connection between exercise and weight loss
Exercise alone is not as effective for losing weight as making healthy adjustments to your diet. But, combining the two works better than either method alone, especially long term (Johns, 2014).
The extent to which exercise contributes to weight loss depends on the number of calories you eat; if you are already on a severely restricted low-calorie diet, adding exercise is not likely to contribute much more to your weight loss. Studies show that exercise is the key to preventing weight gain or preventing weight regain after weight loss (Jakicic, 2018; Slentz, 2004).
In an extensive study of over 5,000 people who lost a minimum of 30 pounds and maintained that weight loss for at least one year, 90% of participants exercised an average of one hour per day (Catenacci, 2008).
Not everyone has the time to exercise for one hour every day. However, some physical activity, regardless of the time or intensity, is better than nothing. Regardless of weight loss, engaging in physical activity can reduce your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, cancer, depression, and improve cognitive function (McKinney, 2016).
7 Best exercises for weight loss
Not all exercise is created equal when it comes to weight loss. Exercise works to help you lose weight by burning more calories than you take in. The more vigorous the exercise, the more calories it burns.
One way to determine if your activity is moderate or vigorous is to notice your breathing and heart rate. In moderate-intensity exercises, you will notice your heart rate go up. You can talk, but not sing, during the workout. During vigorous-intensity workouts, you can’t say more than a few words without taking a breath, and your heart rate will rise even higher (HHS, 2018).
That being said, there is no single best exercise for everyone. The best exercise for you is the exercise that you’re able to do, and do consistently.
1. Walking, jogging, and running
Walking, jogging, and running (often referred to as cardio) are perhaps the easiest exercises to incorporate into your daily routine. Cardio can be done anywhere, and it’s free. You can go for a walk on your lunch break, jog for 20-30 min around your neighborhood or on a treadmill, or even train for a 5k race. You have full control over the intensity of your cardio.
A brisk walk is considered a moderate-intensity exercise. Studies show that a cardio exercise, even as simple as a brisk walk, can help you lose weight and decrease your abdominal fat and waist circumference (Hong, 2014). Increased abdominal fat puts you at higher risk for future health problems, so reducing this fat may be important to your overall health. You don’t have to do all of your cardio at one time. Another study showed that splitting up a 50-minute walk into two brisk 25-minute walks could be more effective for weight loss (Madjd, 2019).
Jogging and running are more intense versions of cardio exercise and burn more calories per minute than walking. A 4-6 mph pace is generally considered jogging, while 6-mph pace is considered running. Like brisk walking, light jogging may also decrease your abdominal fat (Ohkawara, 2007). However, jogging and running are not for everyone. These are considered vigorous-intensity exercises. Some people struggle with the increased intensity, and others have joint problems that prevent them from running outdoors. Some treadmills provide cushioning that may make running easier on knees, hips, and ankles.
2. High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a blanket term for exercise regimens that alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercises with periods of rest or low-intensity exercises. HIIT has become a popular method of exercising due to the theory that you burn more calories in a shorter amount of time.
Research suggests that HIIT, performed with resistance training, can burn more calories than other traditional moderate-intensity methods of exercising, like walking, cycling, etc. (Falcone, 2015). In some studies, people enjoy doing HIIT more than traditional continuous exercises (Roy, 2018). However, many studies report that HIIT induces the same amount of weight loss as traditional moderate-intensity continuous methods (Petridou, 2019).
Since HIIT takes 40% less of a time commitment on average, it may be an option for people who don’t exercise due to time restraints (Wewege, 2017). It’s recommended that most people start at a moderate intensity and work their way up to high intensity gradually to reduce the risk of injury.
3. Strength training
Strength training alone is unlikely to burn enough calories to cause significant weight loss (Swift, 2018). However, strength training, also called resistance training or weight training, does have health and weight benefits. It can help you burn fat, build muscle, and get stronger. Increased muscle mass, along with other factors, may increase your resting (or basal) metabolic rate (RMR)--the number of calories your body burns at rest (Petridou, 2019). Studies show that incorporating both strength training and aerobic exercise (brisk walking or jogging) with a low-calorie diet has a higher chance of leading to weight loss than dieting alone (Luglio, 2017).
Strength training can use any combination of bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc. during workouts. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that you incorporate strength training (e.g., weight lifting, pushups) into your exercise routine two or more days per week (HHS, 2018). Before starting a strength training regimen, be sure to discuss your plans with your healthcare provider to prevent injury.
Another popular form of aerobic exercise is cycling, with both indoor and outdoor options. Cycling outdoors allows you to enjoy beautiful scenery, which may amp up your enjoyment of the exercise and empower you to stick with it. Indoor cycling provides a non-weight bearing and low-impact (but not necessarily low-intensity) option, which can be more comfortable on your joints. Studies show that cycling combined with dieting may improve fitness, cholesterol levels, and encourage weight loss (Chavarrias, 2019).
If you’re looking for a low-impact exercise, swimming is a great option. Depending on the stroke and your intensity, you can burn significant calories by swimming. Like other forms of exercise, swimming can improve your fitness, decrease your body fat, and improve your cholesterol levels (Lee, 2015).
Yoga is an exercise that many use to improve both physical and mental health. Yoga focuses on breathing, posture, and a general healthy lifestyle. It may be a useful tool for sustained weight loss as people who practice yoga are not only more active, but may experience less stress (and stress eating), a reduced appetite, a mental shift towards healthier eating, and feel a sense of social support (Ross, 2016).
Pilates is a popular form of exercise and emphasizes the basic principles of concentration, control, center, flow, precision, and breathing. Some report that Pilates improves muscle tone, core strength, and overall fitness. However, some studies report no improvement in the ratio of fat to muscle in the body (Aladro-Gonzalvo, 2012). However, if Pilates is your favorite way to exercise, keep it up. If you’re aiming to lose weight, combine Pilates with dietary changes, and try to incorporate other moderate-intensity exercises, like brisk walking, when possible.
How often should I exercise to lose weight?
Studies suggest that it takes 80 minutes of moderate exercise or 35 minutes of vigorous exercise per day to support weight maintenance (Loveman, 2011). The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that a workout routine for adults include at least 150–300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity (e.g., brisk walking) or 75–150 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity (e.g., running) (HHS, 2018). Try to incorporate strength or resistance training exercises of the major muscle groups (upper body, lower body, core, etc.) into your workout routine at least two days per week.
The best exercise is the one that you enjoy and want to keep doing. With or without weight loss, being physically active is one of the best things you can do for your health. Exercising can lower your risk for hypertension, stroke, cancer, depression, diabetes, and even lengthen your life (McKinney, 2016). With your healthcare provider, family, and friends involved, you can be well on your way to a healthier lifestyle that works for you.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
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