Ultimately, the best exercise to lose weight is the one that you enjoy enough to do consistently. However, when it comes to the best exercise for weight loss, some workouts burn fat and build muscle more efficiently than others – and these two elements are crucial for anyone looking to change their body composition.
We asked Dr Samantha Wild, GP at Bupa UK, and personal trainers Paddy Colman and Joe Corrie, head trainers at Core Collective, to share their top weight loss exercise workout options – and talk us through the various factors that can affect how individuals lose weight through exercise.
The 10 best exercises to lose weight
When we talk about weight loss as a goal, what we really mean is fat loss. It isn’t uncommon for exercisers to lose fat and drop clothing sizes without experiencing any change in body weight. This is because exercise – in all forms, although some to a greater extent than others – helps to build lean muscle, which weighs more than fat. However, muscle tissue also burns more calories, even when you aren’t moving.
It can be tempting to dive straight into a new weight loss regimen, but before you do, consider your goals and make sure they’re viable. ‘Before starting on any weight loss plan, it’s important to make sure you’re doing so safely and for the right reasons,’ says Wild. ‘Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and I’d advise speaking to your GP before carrying out any dramatic changes.’
It’s really important to lose weight at a safe, sustainable rate, Wild continues. Generally-speaking, around 0.5 to 1kg (1 to 2 lbs) each week is a healthy, realistic target to aim for. ‘Losing weight gradually and making sustainable changes to your lifestyle means you’re more likely to maintain a healthy weight in the long term,’ she says.
Here are the 10 best exercises to lose weight:
Gentle on your joints, equipment-free, and extremely convenient – for beginners especially, walking is the best exercise to lose weight. According to Harvard Health, a person weighing 70kg (155 lbs) will burn 186 calories walking at a speed of 4.5 mph (6.4 km/h) for 30 minutes. A person weighing 56kg (125 lbs) will burn 150, while a person weighing 84kg (185 lbs) will burn 222.
‘Many people overlook the fact that the greatest percentage of the calories we burn on a daily basis are from outside the brackets of planned exercise,’ says Corrie. ‘Simply walking around and completing our daily tasks add up to a huge calorie burn. Walking is a superb way to increase your NEAT – non exercise activity thermogenesis – and therefore aids in creating a sufficient calorie deficit for weight loss.’
When starting out, try walking for 30 minutes, four times a week, and build on the duration and frequency from there. It doesn’t have to be 30 minutes at the same speed – in fact, walking at varying speeds can burn up to 20 per cent more calories compared to maintaining a steady pace, research by Ohio State University found. This is because the act of changing speeds burns energy in itself – up to eight per cent of the energy burned during normal daily walking can be attributed to needing to start and stop.
Running is an excellent weight loss exercise. While these words are often used interchangeably, a jogging pace is between 4 and 6 mph (6.4-9.7 km/h), and a running pace is faster than 6 mph (9.7 km/h). According to Harvard Health, a 70kg person can expect to burn 298 calories jogging at a 5-mph (8 km/h) pace for 30 minutes, and 372 calories running at a 6 mph (9.7 km/h) pace for the same duration.
Running offers ‘a multitude of benefits, ranging from feel-good chemical production, an improved musculoskeletal system and a more efficient cardiovascular system,’ says Colman. ‘The latter of three is particularly notable for fat loss, as this correlates to an improved VO2 max, which means you are able to workout for longer and harder when necessary.’
Aerobic exercise such as running is especially effective on harmful visceral fat, which is located deep within the abdominal cavity and fills the spaces between your internal organs. This type of exercise also improves fasting insulin resistance, and reduces liver enzymes and fasting triglyceride levels – known risk factors for diabetes and heart disease. To get started, try jogging for 20 or 30 minutes, four times per week.
There are many different types of cycling – traditional outdoors cycling, spin classes on stationary gym bikes, and even indoor cycling workouts that incorporate light weights. According to Harvard Health, a 70kg person burns around 260 calories cycling on a stationary bike at a moderate pace for 30 minutes, and 298 calories cycling on an outdoor bike at a moderate pace of 12 to 13.9 mph (19 to 22.4 km/h) for the same time period.
As a non-weight-bearing, low-impact exercise, cycling provides all the fat-burning potential of running while being gentle on your joints. ‘Cycling not only raises your heart rate but also has the capacity to burn a large amount of calories,’ says Corrie. ‘As well as building your aerobic capacity performing this exercise will burn more calories which can contribute to fat loss.’
4. Weight training
Also called resistance or ‘strength’ training, weight training is an essential part of any weight loss regime. According to Harvard Health, a 70kg person burns 112 calories lifting weights for 30 minutes. It also builds muscle and strength, which is important for fat loss.
‘Weight training is an incredible way to help you lose fat,’ says Corrie. ‘It not only burns calories during your workout but also after you finish. With every gram of lean muscle you build you will increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories you burn at rest.’
Endurance training, such as running, increases the amount of type I muscle fibres, whereas weight training increases type II muscle fibres. In a study, Boston University researchers demonstrated that an increase in type II muscle mass can directly reduce body fat.
5. Circuit training
Circuit training involves a combination of endurance training, resistance training, and high-intensity exercises performed in a circuit. Typically, six or more exercises are performed for either a set number of repetitions or amount of time, with short rest periods between each one. After a short break, you repeat the circuit again.
According to Harvard Health, a 70kg person burns 298 calories participating in 30 minutes of circuit training. This type of workout raises your heart rate and strengthens muscles at the same time, making it an extremely effective weight loss exercise.
‘Combining exercises within a circuit format can ensure you target most muscles, this increases your body’s demand for oxygen, which in turn increases energy expenditure and contributes to fat loss,’ says Colman. ‘The pairing of certain exercises – for example, ‘push’ and ‘pull’ can also contribute to creating a boosted metabolic rate.’
6. Interval training
Interval training is a broad term that refers to short bursts of timed exercise interspersed with recovery periods. It could involve cycling or running, or using plyometric or bodyweight exercises. Interval training burns fat and improves fitness more quickly than constant but moderately-intensive physical activity, research by the University Of Guelph found.
One of the most popular and well-known styles of this workout is HIIT, which stands for high intensity interval training. A HIIT workout usually lasts between 10 and 20 minutes, and might involve exercising at maximum effort for 30 seconds, and then recovering at a minimal effort pace for one or two minutes.
Not only does HIIT burn a lot of calories in a short period of time – one study found that HIIT burns up to 30 per cent more calories per minute than weight training, cycling, and running on a treadmill – but your body continues burning calories after the workout is over, known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).
For that reason, many people believe HIIT is the best exercise to lose weight. ‘HIIT training is an extremely efficient method when looking at burning calories,’ says Corrie. ‘You can burn a similar number of calories to more endurance based methods with a much smaller time commitment.’
As weight loss exercise options go, boxing-inspired workouts are among the most effective, since they build muscle and burn fat at the same time. High intensity drills bring the calorie-burning effects of HIIT training, while bag work builds full-body muscle, since it engages the entire upper and lower body.
According to Harvard Health, a 70kg person burns 335 calories participating in 30 minutes of sparring. ‘Boxing is a high-impact workout which can result in a significant calorie burn,’ says Corrie. ‘Offering a greater calorie burn than some other types of cardiovascular exercise, boxing is a fantastic choice with the goal of losing fat in mind.’
8. Suspension training
Suspension training is a relatively new type of weight training workout that uses the weight of your body and gravity as resistance, using a system of ropes and straps. It’s especially useful for improving your balance, coordination, stability and flexibility, and is sometimes referred to as TRX training, after the brand name of equipment.
‘Suspension training can be a beneficial tool for fat loss,’ says Colman. ‘The nature of instability training means you target more muscles at one time, turning each exercise into a total body movement. This encourages more energy expenditure and ensures you burn more calories in less time.’
Yoga might not be your first thought when you think ‘weight loss exercise’, but it’s a great way to build muscle and burn calories. In fact, according to Harvard Health, a 70kg person burns 149 calories practicing Hatha yoga for 30 minutes. ‘Yoga can be a great way to build lean muscle, in turn increasing your basal metabolic rate which is a massive win when looking to lose body fat,’ says Corrie. ‘Many types of yoga involve isometric exercises, which will tally up on your calorie burn for the day too.’
In a 10-year observational stud by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, regular yoga practice helped to prevent middle-age spread in people of an average weight, and promoted weight loss in those who were overweight. ‘Men and women who were overweight and practiced yoga lost about 5 pounds, while those who did not practice yoga gained about 14 pounds in that 10-year period,’ said lead author Dr Alan Kristal.
Unlike cycling or running, rowing hits both your upper and lower body, recruiting almost 85 per cent of your muscles when performed with proper form. According to Harvard Health, a 70kg person burns 260 calories rowing at a moderate pace for 30 minutes.
‘Rowing is one of my go-to’s when looking at losing body fat, especially for those at the start of a weight loss journey,’ says Corrie. ‘It’s low-impact, so friendly on joints, and you use almost every major muscle group in the body during each stroke – resulting in massive calorie burn. This is a fantastic way to create a sufficient calorie deficit for weight loss.’
How much weight can you realistically expect to lose?
How much weight you can expect to shed while exercising depends on a variety of factors, including your diet, gender, age, starting weight, and lifestyle.
As people age, they tend to gain fat and lose muscle, which has a negative impact on their RMR. ‘This can make it harder to lose weight, so it’s important to stick to a healthy weight loss plan that focuses on sustainable lifestyle changes, such as exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet, that’s full of healthy fats, fruit and vegetables,’ Wild says.
Women tend to have a higher fat-to-muscle ratio than men, which can impact their RMR. ‘As a general rule, men tend to have a quicker metabolism because they have a higher muscle mass, heavier bones and less body fat than women,’ says Wild. ‘This may mean that men usually lose weight faster; but this is short-term, and most studies show that this evens out over time.’
People who weigh more tend to lose weight quicker than those who weigh less. ‘Generally-speaking, the more you weigh, the more calories you burn,’ says Wild. ‘If you have a high amount of muscle mass or you weigh more, you’ll burn more calories, even when you’re resting because your metabolism is faster.’
The adage ‘you can’t out-train a bad diet’ is true. But while being in a calorie deficit is essential to weight loss, of equal importance is consuming quality calories. An avocado may contain the same amount of calories as a doughnut, but due to the prebiotic fibre and unsaturated fats in the former, the way your body processes them is wildly different.
Restricting your calorie intake or limiting your diet to one particular food isn’t healthy or sustainable, Wild warns. ‘Although you may lose a few pounds at first, it’s unlikely that you’ll sustain the weight loss in the long-term,’ she says. ‘As soon as you stop restricting your diet, chances are you’ll put the weight straight back on. Instead, think about your lifestyle and make realistic changes.’
Not getting enough shut eye affects your body’s hunger hormones – ghrelin and leptin – leaving you feeling hungrier and more tempted to snack, says Wild. ‘A lack of sleep also leaves you feeling fatigued, so you may not feel like exercising,’ she continues. ‘As a general rule, aim for between seven and nine hours each night and listen to your body – chances are, if you feel tired and fatigued the next day, you’ve not had enough sleep.’
Sometimes underlying health conditions – like an underactive thyroid or diabetes – can slow your metabolism down, says Wild. This can affect how quickly you lose weight. ‘If you’re eating healthily, exercising more and sleeping well and not losing weight, it’s important to speak to your GP, as they will be able to help,’ she says.
Last updated: 16-09-2020
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