What’s the Best Exercise for Weight Loss?

Losing weight isn’t easy…

If you’re going to commit the time and effort needed to get in a good workout, you want to be sure that you’re doing the best exercises for weight loss.

But what’s the best kind of exercise for weight loss? And to what extent does exercise actually help you lose weight?

In this blog, we’re going to separate fact from fiction when it comes to exercise and losing weight. By the time you finish this article, you’ll have a better grasp of what exercises to do, and what results you can expect.

Does Exercise Actually Contribute to Weight Loss?

When it comes to exercise and losing weight, marketers love to tell you that it’s all you need to do to say goodbye to that extra weight. Shows like “The Biggest Loser,” suggest that if we eat little enough and work out hard enough, we’ll be able to lose weight quickly—and maybe even keep it off.

Yet study after study shows that weight loss isn’t that simple for most people. The calories-in versus calories-out methodology is flawed. As a 2017 study by the National Institute of Health explained, “growing evidence suggests that the calorie imbalance concept may not be sufficient to manage and reverse the obesity epidemic.” Other factors, like gut microbiota and epigenetics may significantly affect whether or not you suffer from obesity.

Just because you burn more calories than you eat doesn’t mean you’ll automatically lose weight. Additionally, it is very important to note that studies show that exercise by itself without accompanying dietary changes does not result in weight loss. This is because without a clear dietary plan, as we burn calories we simply replace them.

That said, exercise is a critical component of successful weight loss plans. Studies show that lifestyle changes are necessary if you want to lose weight, and one of the critical pieces is exercise when used in conjunction with the other needed components. You’ll want to keep two critical things in mind:

1. Individual variability: How much weight you lose depends on more factors than just the type of exercise you do—every person will have different results.
2. Long-term consistency: You must keep exercising in order to maintain your hard-earned weight loss. As we all know, quickly abandoned New Year’s resolutions do not yield sustained results.

If you are able to lose weight, it can be even more difficult to keep it off. This is true for two reasons. First, many of us end up gravitating back to old habits due to the dizzying pace of our lives. Second, your body is physiologically fighting against weight loss. Giving yourself a chance at losing weight and keeping it off always means making lifelong changes to your diet and exercise regime. But when you use a reverse perspective to view the end from the beginning, in spite of the sacrifices, the results are worth it.

Exercise Improves Your Health, Even if You Don’t Lose a Lot of Weight

A study published in the European Heart Journal found that excess weight doesn’t affect your risk for some diseases, as long as you’re metabolically healthy. In this study, researchers found that those who carry extra weight but are metabolically healthy are at no greater risk of dying from cancer or heart disease than their leaner peers. Many of those who carried excess weight but maintained metabolic health exercised regularly.

What this means is that exercise is valuable, independently of weight loss, even if the pounds don’t immediately melt off. When you work out, even if you don’t lose a lot of weight, there are changes going on beneath the visible surface that make you healthier.

In fact, exercise is also very beneficial for our mental and emotional health. In his book Spark, John Ratay, MD, a Harvard neuropsychiatrist describes these direct effects of exercise on the brain. Exercise actually promotes the growth, function, and health of your brain. It also increases your attention span, raises your IQ, and prevents age related mental decline. In at least one average Midwest American school system, implementing 20 minutes of vigorous exercise just before classes in the morning increased average performance so significantly that this school became the number 6 ranked school scholastically in the world with no other changes. Exercise is just as effective as current pharmaceuticals at treating depression, anxiety, and ADD. Overall, exercise is at least as important for our mental health and function as it is for our bodies.

However, studies have consistently shown that although exercise does make us healthier and smarter, by itself it does not yield consistent weight loss. One review by researchers at the National Institute of Health showed that patients who tried to lose weight through just exercise experienced “minimal weight loss.” Therefore, the best exercise for weight loss is simply exercise combined with complete lifestyle modification including an accompanying change in dietary paradigm.

Here’s how Obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff characterizes exercise for weight loss:

“By preventing cancers, improving blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, bolstering sleep, attention, energy and mood, and doing so much more, exercise has indisputably proven itself to be the world’s best drug – better than any pharmaceutical product any physician could ever prescribe. Sadly though, exercise is not a weight loss drug, and so as long as we continue to push exercise primarily (and sadly sometimes exclusively) in the name of preventing or treating adult or childhood obesity, we’ll also continue to short-change the public about the genuinely incredible health benefits of exercise, and simultaneously misinform them about the realities of long term weight management.”

But that doesn’t mean exercise isn’t a critical piece of weight loss—it’s just not the only piece. We all want to be able to both see and feel our progress, so let’s take a look at the best exercise for weight loss, that can help people lose weight within the context of overall lifestyle modification.

Cardio or Weights–What’s the Best Exercise for Weight Loss?

If you’ve talked to people who’ve used exercise to lose weight, you’ve probably heard it all. Everyone has a different opinion on the best exercise for weight loss. Some people swear by group classes, from yoga and pilates to CrossFit and cycling classes. Others insist that you must lift weights to lose weight. Still others that think that, unless your heart rate is elevated, you won’t lose any weight at all.

So here’s some good news: there is no bad option when it comes to exercise (as long as you’re exercising safely). To lose weight, you want to move more and you want to build muscle. Group classes are great; weightlifting is wonderful; and walking, biking, jogging, and swimming can all help you to lose weight too.

The Best Exercise for Weight Loss is Both

However, the best results often come not from using cardio or weights in isolation, but from the combination of cardio and weights. When you do a cardio workout, you will burn more calories than if you did a similar duration of weights. However, your metabolism slows down when you lose weight due to muscle loss and also as you age (again largely thanks to muscle loss). Muscle mass burns calories and as a result people who have more muscle burn more calories with any given exercise. By helping you to build muscle, weight training can help to increase the amount of calories that you burn in any exercise, including cardio, that uses those muscles.

Your body benefits in different ways from different types of workouts, and they’re all important for health and weight. Ideally, you should do a number of different exercises, some aerobic (“cardio”), like swimming or jogging; and some muscle-building, like lifting weights or using resistance machines or bands.

When you’re exercising, one of the most important elements is consistency. In order to achieve consistency we all have to prioritize the activity by planning a specific daily time for it.

One study of 200 women who suffered from obesity found that those who lost the most weight exercised for 270 to 300 minutes per week for 2 years. Unfortunately, working out for a few months, and then spending months inactive, is not likely to yield the results that you want.

Another important concept is that if you are starting an exercise plan from a previously sedentary lifestyle, then you want to start slowly and build over time. You can still derive benefits from exercise even if you only work out for 10 minutes at a time. So starting with shorter and lower intensity sessions in the beginning and intentionally building the length and intensity of these sessions over time is more likely to be practically feasible, safe, and lead to more realistic success over the long haul.

So what’s the best exercise for weight loss? It’s an activity (or better yet, activities) that you know you’ll be able to commit to for months and even years. A key factor to consider here is activities that you enjoy. When you enjoy exercise, you will be more likely to continue it. Examples of this would include pickup basketball if enjoy competing, group exercise classes if you are very social, or perhaps a solitary walk or jog if you enjoy your alone time and appreciate contemplative moments in life.

Another factor to consider is that all forms of exercise may not be safe for every person. While running can be a very effective exercise, if you suffer from significant joint or back issues, you may need to strategically plan your exercise activities more carefully with professional assistance from an exercise physiologist in order to avoid further damage. And above all, if you suffer from heart disease of any kind, you should also seek clearance from your doctor before starting any new exercise plan. The best exercise for weight loss is also one that’s safe for you.

Additional Exercise for Weight Loss Resources

Spark People
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
John Ratey, M.D.
Colorado Center for Health and Sports Science
Bariatric Times: Promoting a Physically Active Lifestyle in Bariatric Patients
Bariatric Times: Exercise… The Key to Weight Loss Success
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Exercise Can Help Control Weight

What if Exercise Doesn’t Help Me Lose Weight?

If you’re suffering from obesity, sometimes even with very good intentions and diligent effort, diet and exercise alone may not be enough for you to lose weight and keep it off. In this case, it’s important to understand that this is not your fault. When you suffer from obesity, your body is hardwired to maintain or add to its current weight.

If you’ve worked very hard at diet and exercise, and lost 50 pounds, only to watch helplessly as the scale creeps back up, then bariatric surgery may be the tool that you’re looking for. Bariatric surgery can level the playing field in your fight with obesity. Combined with long-term diet and exercise, bariatric surgery can help you to lose weight, keep it off, and live the life that you deserve.

If you would like to learn more about bariatric surgery and whether or not it’s right for you, then go ahead and schedule an appointment with our friendly team today. We’re here to guide you in the right direction to help you reach your weight loss goals.

Dr. Joshua Long headshot

This page was medically reviewed by Dr. Joshua Long, MD, MBA, FACS, FASMBS. Dr. Long is a double-board-certified bariatric surgeon and bariatric medical director for Parker Adventist Hospital.
Full Bio: Dr. Joshua Long, MD, MBA, FACS, FASMBS
Page Updated: January 6th, 2023

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