Losing weight is easier said than done, and there are no shortcuts or prodigious formulas to easily take off extra pounds. Weight loss, in all circumstances, must be a progressive process that involves a combination of a healthy diet and exercise.
How does exercise help you lose weight? Which exercises are the most helpful? This article takes a look at the evidence.
How Can Exercise Help You Lose Weight?
Studies show that inactivity is one of the major factors in weight gain and obesity (1, 2). Being physically active is important to reach your weight loss goals. Regular exercise can help increase your metabolic rate to burn more calories (1, 2, 3, 4). More studies have shown that putting together aerobic exercise and resistance training can boost fat loss and maintain muscle mass, which are both important to keep excess weight off (2, 4, 5, 6, 7).
How Much Exercise Is Needed for Weight Loss?
To lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit. The number of calories you consume needs to be less than the amount of calories you burn. How much weight you lose depends on the amount of exercise you’re willing to perform over the course of a week.
According to health experts, you should get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise each week to see substantial changes (8).
You should also perform strength-training activities that involve all major muscle groups at least two days each week.
If you want to lose one pound each week, you need to create a 3,500-calorie deficit, which means you need to burn 3,500 more calories than you consume in one week.
What Are the Best Exercises for Weight Loss?
1. Cardio or Aerobic Exercises
When you hear the word cardio, what comes to mind? You are probably thinking of running on a treadmill or taking a brisk walk at the park? Both are actually perfect examples of cardio exercises. Cardio or aerobic exercises are helpful for weight loss because they:
- Use large muscle groups, such as your legs or upper body
- Require respiration or controlled breathing
- Increase your heart rate and keeps it in an aerobic zone for a set amount of time
To maximize your time spent exercising, consider choosing physical activities that burn the most amount of calories in the least amount of time. This typically involves using the large muscles of your lower body at a moderate or vigorous intensity.
According to the CDC, a 154-pound person can burn anywhere between 140 and 295 calories in 30 minutes doing a cardiovascular exercise (9). Here are some different methods of cardio and the number of calories you can burn in 30 minutes:
- Hiking: 185 calories
- Dancing: 165 calories
- Walking at 3.5 mph: 140 calories
- Running at 5 mph: 295 calories
- Bicycling at >10 mph: 295 calories
You can also perform cardio exercises at home! It will not only be convenient, but it can also make you save more time and money. The good thing about cardio exercise is that it doesn’t require you to use different kinds of equipment. All you need is a little creativity with various cardio exercises in order for you to burn calories, tone muscles, and eventually help you in weight loss. Here are examples:
In just 20 minutes, you can burn around 220 calories by turning the rope handles repeatedly while you jump over it. Well, the ropes are not expensive. This kind of cardio exercise does not even require special skills. You can do this anytime for as long as you have enough space. All you need is a jump rope and of course, a nice pair of shoes.
In just 10 minutes, you can burn up to 100 calories by performing kickboxing. You just have to perform it at the right intensity. You simply have to punch, kick, and combine these actions against the air, a bag, or even another person. But in doing this, you have to learn the basics of punches and kicks.
If you have stairs at home, you can actually perform not only cardio exercises but also strength training. You can also use stairs to perform various exercises. If you find it hard to access stairs, maybe, a fitness step platform can help.
While these cardio exercises do burn calories and help aid in weight loss, combining it with at least two to three days a week of strength training workouts can increase the rate at which you lose weight.
The amount of cardio you need to lose weight depends on various factors like your current weight, diet, daily activity level, and age.
Swimming is also a form of cardio exercise. But unlike walking or running, moving through the water creates extra resistance, forcing you to use more muscles.
Swimming can tone your upper body, lower body, and core all at the same time. It gives you a full-body workout and more overall muscle definition versus other cardio routines. By building muscles, you are also burning more calories. It can also help you burn belly fat! Evidence showed that women who swam 3 times weekly lost more fat around their waists and hips compared to those who walked 3 times weekly (10). What’s more is that water-based exercises are low-impact, so they are easier on your lower extremities. Swimming can give you cardio and muscle building without the heavy wear and tear on your body that you can get from land-based activities such as running and weight lifting.
What’s more? It does not take very long to reap the fat-burning benefits of swimming. Evidence suggests that a middle-aged woman can lose a significant amount of body fat in as fast as 12 weeks by swimming for 60 minutes 3 times weekly (11).
With swimming, a 150-pound person can burn approximately 400 calories, on average, during an hour-long swim at a moderate pace. This can increase to 700 calories if vigorously done. However, these numbers don’t hold true for everybody. The number of calories you burn during swimming will also depend on your weight, duration of exercise, stroke used, and swim efficiency.
You will burn more calories if you swim faster and cover more distance. The fastest swim stroke is freestyle, which can torch around 404 calories within 30 minutes. But, that doesn’t mean you must opt for the freestyle every time you get into the pool.
Again, the number of calories you burn will also depend on duration and frequency. If you prefer the breaststroke, which can help you burn approximately 367 calories within 30 minutes, you just have to swim a little longer.
Compare these numbers to just 100 calories for 30 minutes of brisk walking or 300 calories for 30 minutes of running at 6 miles per hour. You’ll notice how effective swimming is in burning calories compared to other exercises. Mix up your strokes to work different muscles and keep things interesting!
Lastly, swimming is a safe exercise option for pregnant women and people with disabilities, arthritis, injury, and other issues that make high-impact routines hard or impossible. Swimming may even help decrease pain or hasten your recovery from an injury. This too is enjoyable for kids and teens and is affordable compared to other routines!
3. HIIT Training and TABATA
High-Intensity Interval Training includes short bursts of intense workout alternated with low-intensity recovery periods. Surprisingly, many people agree that it is the most time-efficient way to exercise (12, 13). Normally, a single session will range from 10 to 30 minutes.
Despite how short the routine is, it can give you the same health benefits as when you double moderate-intensity exercises (14, 15). Activities may vary but among the favorites are sprinting, jumping rope, and biking. The specific amount of time you exercise and recover will also differ based on the activity you choose and how intensely you are performing.
For instance, you may use a stationary bike for cycling as fast as you can against high resistance for 30 seconds, followed by several minutes of slow and easy cycling with low resistance. This is one round or repetition. You need to complete 4-6 repetitions in one session.
Regardless of how you want to do it, HIIT should always involve short periods of vigorous exercise that will increase your heart rate (16).
TABATA is a form of HIIT. It was named after Dr. Izumi Tabatan, a Japanese scientist. He discovered that shorter, high-intensity workouts could give you better aerobic and anaerobic endurance in as fast as 6 weeks as compared to longer workouts at moderate intensity (17). However, unlike HIIT, this form of exercise is only set to last for only 4 minutes. It involves 20 seconds of extremely vigorous exercises, followed by 10 seconds of rest. This is then repeated 8 times.
Both focus on using maximum effort over short periods with just brief periods of rest and share the following health benefits:
You Burn A Lot of Calories Within A Short Time
You can burn more calories easily using HIIT. Experts found 25-30% more calories were burnt within 30 minutes using HIIT as compared to other types of exercise like biking, running, and weight training (18, 19).
One HIIT repetition only often includes 20 seconds of rigorous training, followed by 40 seconds of rest. This is just 1/3 of the other groups’ exercise time. HIIT exercises to be much shorter than traditional workout sessions because they allow you to burn approximately the same amount of calories while spending less time exercising.
You Increase Your Metabolism For Hours After Exercising
HIIT exercises help you burn calories even after you are done with your routine. Many studies have proved HIIT’s impressive ability to boost your metabolism for hours after a workout (20, 21, 22). In fact, just two minutes of sprinting can help increase your metabolism over 24 hours as much as 30 minutes of running (23). HIIT can also direct your body towards burning fat instead of carbs for energy.
You Gain Muscle
Aside from helping you with fat loss, HIIT exercises have shown to increase mass in the primary muscles being used during sessions in some people (24, 25, 26). It has been noted though that the increases are more likely to occur in people who were less active to start with (27).
While weight training remains to be the gold standard to increase muscle mass, HIIT exercises can support a small amount of muscle growth too!
You Improve Your Oxygen Consumption
Oxygen consumption pertains to your muscles’ ability to use oxygen. To improve oxygen consumption, one is typically required to do endurance training, which involves long sessions of continuous cycling or running at a steady rate.
Evidence shows that 5 weeks of HIIT exercises done 4 days weekly for 20 minutes per session can help improve oxygen consumption by 9% (14). This is equivalent to the improvement seen in people who cycled continuously for 40 minutes per day, 4 days weekly.
One study found that exercising on a stationary bike using both HIIT and traditional routine helped increased oxygen consumption by as much as 25% (15). However, the total time spent exercising is worth-noting. It is one hour of HIIT exercise versus 120 minutes of traditional routine weekly.
Effective TABATA and HIIT workouts for newbies include:
This uses the largest groups of muscles, hence very effective in shaping your glutes. These are perfect starters for Tabata. Stand up straight with your legs slightly apart. Toes should be facing forward and slightly turned out. Make sure that your feet are well anchored to the ground with your weight on your heels. Keep a proud chest and dip your hips down to a squatting position. Descend as low as you can without ruining your form. Keep your back upright with your hand stretching in front. Drive weight into your heels while standing up and squeezing your glutes at the top. Keep repeating for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds — complete 8 repetitions.
Get into a prone position on the floor with your head facing downward and palms flat on the floor. Form a straight line from your head to toes, and contract your abdomen to keep your hips from sagging (plank). Make sure to keep your elbows close to your body for better resistance. Slowly raise yourself by pushing the ground away from you. Keep exerting force until your arms are almost in a straight line again, but make sure not to lock your arms. Breathe out as you push. Repeat lowering and raising at a slow and steady pace. Every pair counts as a single push up — complete 10 repetitions.
4. Weight Lifting
Weight lifting is a type of strength training that employs the use of weights for resistance. As it gives stress to your muscles, it allows them to adapt and get stronger, similar to how aerobic exercises are strengthening your heart. This can be performed using free weights like dumbbells and barbells, or with the help of weight machines.
It is true that if you weigh approximately 73 kg, you will most likely burn 250 calories per 30 minutes of jogging at a moderate pace and running faster at 6 miles per hour can increase this number to as much as 365 calories. On the other hand, weight training for the same amount of time can only help you burn about 13-220 calories (30).
However, if you will only gauge the effectiveness of weight lifting by the number of calories you burn in a single session, you’ll surely miss out on all the other fat-loss benefits weight lifting can offer (31). While it is true that cardiovascular exercises help you burn more calories per session, lifting weights allows your body to burn more calories long-term.
Weight training can help you build more muscles as compared to cardio exercises. Muscles are more effective at burning calories as compared to other tissues in the body, including fat (32). Building muscle is also the key to increasing your resting metabolism, the number of calories you burn at rest.
One study showed that weight training could give men a 9% increase in their resting metabolisms if they do 24 weeks of weight training. Women benefitted, too, but the increase is smaller, only amounting to approximately 4% (33). This sounds fairly good, right?
Aside from helping you build muscles and increase your metabolism gradually, weight training also has other significant calorie-burning effects. Several studies agree that you burn more calories in the succeeding hours following a weight training session, compared to cardio exercises (34, 35, 36). In fact, there have been reports suggesting that resting metabolism can stay elevated for up to 38 hours after weight training (36). All of these proved that the calorie-burning effects of weights are not only limited to when you are exercising. You can still burn calories for hours or even days after.
Two good routines perfectly designed for newbies are:
Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension
- Stand with your feet slightly apart
- Hold a 2-5-pound dumbbell in each hand with your arms extended overhead
- Without moving your elbows, slowly lower the right dumbbell behind your neck, take a pause, and then lift it to the starting position
- Repeat using your left hand
- Stand with your feet slightly apart and your arms out to the side, raised on the level of your shoulder
- Lift your right leg out in front of you and slowly squat down. Stop when you feel like you are about to lose your balance. You can place one hand on the wall to keep your balance.
- Contact the muscles on your butt and legs to return to the starting position
- Complete reps, then switch legs and repeat
Derived from the Sanskrit word, “Yuji,” which means union or to join, and to direct and concentrate one’s attention, yoga is an ancient practice that promotes a sense of balance and connection between the body and mind (37). It includes meditation, breathing exercises, and poses designed to reduce stress and encourage relaxation. Yoga helps you lose weight by:
While yoga is far different from other aerobic exercises, a review of studies found that yoga can help with weight loss by burning calories (38). There are several active, intense forms of yoga that can help prevent weight gain. Vinyasa, Ashtanga, and power yoga are excellent examples. Power yoga and Vinyasa are offered at hot yoga studios and keep you moving constantly.
Restorative yoga is not physical, but it can still help in weight loss. In fact, it has helped overweight women to lose weight, including belly fat (39). These results are promising, especially for those whose weight may make extremely physical exercises difficult.
Yoga is very popular for its ability to reduce stress and encourage relaxation. In fact, several studies have proved that it can decrease the secretion of cortisol, which is also known as the primary stress hormone (40, 41). Yoga was also found to be effective in lowering levels of stress, fatigue, anxiety, and depression among emotionally distressed women (42). The same results were noted on a 10-weeks study involving more than 130 people. Yoga helped improve their mental health and quality of life (43). When used along with meditation, yoga can be a powerful tool to keep stress in check.
Inducing Good Rest and Sleep
Poor sleep quality can cause obesity, high blood pressure, and depression (44, 45, 46). Studies have shown that yoga can help promote better sleep, regardless of age and health condition. A group of elderly patients fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and felt more-rested in the morning after practicing yoga (47). Lymphoma patients also benefited from yoga. They had fewer sleep disturbances and better sleep duration and quality. Yoga has helped reduce the need for sleep medications (48). Though the mechanism of action is not yet clear, yoga has been shown to improve melatonin secretion, a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness (49).
Promoting Healthy Eating Habits
Yoga’s mental and spiritual aspects can help one develop his or her mindfulness. This can increase your awareness. It can help you make better choices about food and daily lifestyle. People who practiced yoga developed mindful eating and were able to avoid unhealthy foods (50). Another study also found that mindfulness training has short-term benefits regarding binge eating and exercise participation (51).
Mindful eating has helped people develop healthy eating habits. It helped increase weight loss, control blood sugar, and treat disordered eating behaviors (52, 53, 54). One study included yoga in an outpatient eating disorder treatment program. As observed in more than 50 patients, yoga reduced both the symptoms and preoccupation with food (55).
Since you will be advised not to do yoga when you are feeling full, you may notice that you make healthy food choices before your session. After yoga, you’ll be more likely to ask for fresh, unprocessed foods. Chewing each bite slowly and thoroughly can also lead to less consumption.
The amount of weight you’ll lose from yoga would also depend on several other factors like sleep, lifestyle, and eating habits. You still have to be mindful of the importance of taking a diet rich in whole, fresh foods. But according to CDC, regardless of the type of exercise you are doing, people who lose weight gradually, approximately 1-2 pounds weekly, are more likely to be successful at keeping it off (56). So, take it slowly but surely!
One of the best yoga exercises is Tadasana. Also known as the mountain pose, this looks very easy because it is basically just standing. But this serves as a basis for all the other standing poses and inversions. Do this action to work on your torso and legs. This is great for confidence and easing anxiety.
- Stand with your big toes almost not touching and your heels somewhat apart.
- Put your weight into all sides of your feet – big toe, little toe, and both sides of your heel. Push into your feet and keep your leg muscles active.
- Take a deep breath and roll your shoulders up and back and releasing them down. Your shoulder blades should rest toward each other and your neck should be long.
- Take a few deep breaths. You may close your eyes if you want to.
Many exercises can help you lose weight.
Some great choices for burning calories include walking, jogging, running, cycling, swimming, weight training, interval training, yoga, and pilates.
That said, many other exercises can also help boost your weight loss efforts.
It’s most important to choose an exercise that you enjoy doing. This makes it more likely that you’ll stick to it long term and see results.