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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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 diseases, 61(2), 206-213.
Westcott, W. L. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current sports medicine reports, 11(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 reviews, 10(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.