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What is the Best Workout for Weight Loss?

Dr. Schulte answers another popular patient question: “What is the best workout for weight loss?” Learn what the science says about optimizing your workouts to maximize your results!

In this post, Dr. Schulte answers another popular patient question: “What is the best workout for weight loss?” Learn what the science says about optimizing your workouts to maximize your results!

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Do I Really Need to Workout to Lose Weight?

In short, the answer is no. You can lose weight simply by being in a calorie deficit (meaning you’re eating fewer calories than you’re burning throughout the day– calculate your calorie deficit here!). However, research consistently shows that people who lose weight by changing both their eating habits AND increasing their physical activity are most likely to maintain their weight loss progress long-term (Swift et al., 2018; Wu et al., 2009).

Changing to your eating + activity is ideal to help you improve your metabolism and body composition while losing weight, so the weight is easier to keep off for life.

And we’re always aiming for sustainability, so let’s get excited about exercise

Guidelines from Research-Backed Organizations

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and American Heart Associaton are well-known organizations provide the public with recommendations for living healthy lives. These organizations keep up with research findings and use data to inform their guidelines. For weight management, the recommendations are:

150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise + 2-3 sessions of strength training per week.

For weight loss, aerobic activity guidelines increase to 200-450 minutes per week. Essentially, increased minutes seem to lead to more calorie burn and thus more weight loss.

A Closer Look at Moderate-Intensity Aerobic Exercise

Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise includes activities that get your heart rate up. Examples include walking, jogging, biking, spinning, swimming, dancing, and using the elliptical machine.

The purpose of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise is to improve cardiovascular (heart) function. For weight loss, aerobic exercises can also increase calorie burn while you are doing them. For example, jogging for 30 minutes burns more calories than if you spent those 30 minutes watching Netflix.

A Closer Look at Strength Training

Strength training includes activities that help you build or maintain the muscle tissue in your body. Examples include push-ups, sit-ups, squats, planks, dumbbell exercises, and using the weight lifting machines at the gym. Most people think you need to have a gym membership to strength train, but you really need just a few key items to strength train at home!

Strength training has many metabolic benefits, such as improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing triglycerides and LDL cholesterol (Westcott, 2012). In addition, strength exercises can improve mobility, balance, and bone density. For weight loss, building more muscle increases the number of calories you burn both while you’re doing the activity and after. For example, if you lift weights for 30 minutes, you will burn more calories than if you watched Netflix for 30 minutes, AND you will burn more calories while you’re watching Netflix later. Now that’s awesome!

What is the Best Workout for Weight Loss?

Research-backed recommendations are only helpful if they work for YOU. While you may want to be someone who wakes up at the crack of dawn to run, that might not be realistic.

So, you need to decide what is enjoyable and sustainable for YOU.

When you talk to people who have successfully lost weight and kept it off, focusing on sustainability seems to be the magic ingredient. For example, one study followed 5000+ adults who maintained an average weight loss of 66 lbs for 5 years. Importantly, 94% of participants were regularly physically active (speaking to the benefits of changing both eating and activity habits or long-term progress!). AND, the most common type of activity was walking (The National Weight Control Registry)!

In other words, the best type of exercise is the one you will actually do. So, try out a bunch of different forms of activity, ideally combining some aerobic and strength training exercises. Maybe you develop a love for walking and squeeze in a few pilates videos each week (my favorite combo!).

How to Enjoy Physical Activity More!

First, start slow. Try to do just a little bit more each day. For example, if you currently walk once per week, start by adding a second walk per week. Or, add just 5 minutes to your current walk to make it a bit longer. I’ve created two science-backed walking for weight loss programs that outline how to increase your activity over time.

Second, think about the types of physical activity you enjoyed when you were younger. Build your routine around these exercises! I did gymnastics growing up and loved it. I find that pilates or yoga classes sometimes tap into that feeling of playfulness I used to feel during gymnastic classes.

Third, harness your motivation. I’ve talked more about this in another article. If you’re motivated by rewards, pick a podcast or Netflix show you only watch while you’re on your treadmill. If you’re motivated by tracking your progress, treat yourself to one of the fitness trackers I recommend (you can’t go wrong with the Apple Watch, Fitbit Charge, or Fitbit Versa). If music motivates you, invest in amazing headphones to give you a surround-sound experience during your workout (I personally use the Bose 700 Wireless Bluetooth headphones and they do not disappoint).

Last, involve your loved ones. The accountability will be helpful, and you may even find that physical activity becomes a way you connect with them. My fiancé and I go on two walks per day together with our dog. In the morning, we talk about our plans for the day, and in the afternoon, we share how our day actually went. Our walks end up being the time that is carved out for us to catch up without the distractions of household tasks or electronics.

Dr. Schulte’s Summary

While you can lose weight without exercising, studies consistently show that changing your eating + activity habits leads to the best long-term results. Organizations like the CDC recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two strength training sessions per week. However, research shows that the best specific type of physical activity is the one you will actually do! So, prioritize sustainability when you are creating your exercise routine. You can increase your enjoyment of exercise by starting slow, choosing activities you liked when you were younger, harnessing your motivation, and involving your loved ones. You can do it!

What was your favorite form of physical activity growing up?

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References

CDC guidelines

American Heart Association guidelines

National Weight Control Registry

Swift, D. L., McGee, J. E., Earnest, C. P., Carlisle, E., Nygard, M., & Johannsen, N. M. (2018). The effects of exercise and physical activity on weight loss and maintenance. Progress in cardiovascular diseases61(2), 206-213.

Westcott, W. L. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current sports medicine reports11(4), 209-216.

Wu, T., Gao, X., Chen, M., & Van Dam, R. M. (2009). Long‐term effectiveness of diet‐plus‐exercise interventions vs. diet‐only interventions for weight loss: a meta‐analysis. Obesity reviews10(3), 313-323.

Disclaimer: all opinions are my own and are not affiliated with my employers. Please seek medical guidance before pursuing weight loss or making significant changes to the way you eat or your physical activity routine.

6 replies on “What is the Best Workout for Weight Loss?”

After last Xmass I have gained over 20 pounds… and still wondering what kind of exercise should I do to lose the weight. 

From what I have also read somewhere, alcohol is one of the main contributors when it comes to gaining weight. 
So this should a No-No. 

Second of all, I should include aerobic activities in my daily routine. Didn’t know that it is necessary to spend about 200 to 450 minutes in order to work it well. 
That’s about half an hour each day if we talk about the 200 minutes… that seems doable, but the 450 minutes per week. 

Well, I assume it is better to start with the lower requirement, and slowly increase the performance. 

As you mention, the most important thing is that it must be enjoyable and sustainable for each person. 
I couldn’t agree more with this statement. 

Hi Michal- I’m proud of you for committing to your health after the holidays. Start with incremental increases in your physical activity based on your current activity level. If you’re active about 10 minutes per day now, start by increasing that to 15. You’ll slowly work up to the 200-450 minutes per week that is helpful for weight loss- and 150 minutes per week is the recommendation for weight maintenance. You’ve got this! (PS- if you want tips related to alcohol, I’ve written about that here!).

There are many ways for us to exercise in our daily lives. Walking or Cycling instead of taking the car all the time, Playing sports, and many more. Even walking your dog is a good way to exercise for both you and your pet. 

Fitness subscriptions from Peloton, Apple, etc, are also great for this, especially if you compete with friends. Not only is it fun, but more importantly it helps to motivate you as you want to win. 

Losing weight takes time and effort, and there is no easy way to do it. Great article, and Thank you for sharing.

Hi, Champ! Thank you for sharing your favorite ways to fit exercise into your daily routine. You’re absolutely right that weight loss takes time and consistency. Thanks for reading!

Losing weight and maintaining the weight loss, is what everybody should be striving for. That is why fad diets don’t work, as it is not sustainable. Combining good eating habits with exercise, is the best sustainable way of losing weight and keeping the pounds off. 

And it is as you say, there is a lot that one can do at home, without going to the gym. Even running up and down the stairs to keep warm, helps to burn calories at the same time. I am in my early sixties and find that fast walking is my favorite exercise and doing some core exercises to maintain muscle strength. 

Is there a specific exercise that I can do to increase bone density? Thanks

Hi, Line! It sounds like you already have some incredible habits for promoting bone density, like walking and strength training. Make sure to prioritize foods high in calcium to support bone density, or speak with your healthcare providers to see if a supplement could help as well. Amazing job taking such great care of your health!

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