If you are serious about losing weight, at some point you will need to add in exercise to your overall dieting plan. While people are obese can often lose a lot of weight through dieting alone, exercise for weight loss is a necessary part of a healthy weight loss plan, especially if you want to get down to your ideal body weight.
However, there is a lot of confusion over which weight exercises are “best” or even necessary in order to lose weight. A lot of things work, but you will understand how to pick your weight loss exercises if you understand how the body actually burns calories. First we will go over each type of weight loss exercise options, and then I will be revealing the little-known method for actually pick out the best exercises for your diet plan and body type.
Types of Weight Loss Exercises
For those looking to lose weight, you have a lot of different types of exercises available to you, including:
- Low-intensity cardio (walking, “taking it easy” on cardio machines)
- High-intensity cardio (jogging, running)
- High-intensity interval training (sprints, circuit training, “boot camps” and similar classes)
- Weight Training
With so many options available to you, many people wonder what the best option is while others assume they have to participate in all of these types of exercises.
The truth is that choosing your exercise plan is very dependent upon your actual diet plan. If your diet plan and your exercise plan do not match up, you will be fatigued, moody, and feel completely miserable. This is a recipe for not sticking to your diet. On the other hand, when your diet and exercise plans are in harmony, you feel better, your workouts are better, and you lose more weight.
The Mechanics of Weight Loss
The easiest way to examine exercise for weight loss is to look at the body’s three different energy systems. To simplify, the body has 3 primary “pathways” it can use to generate energy (i.e. burn calories):
- The Creatine-Phosphate System: Fuels activity for 5-15 seconds; relies on carbohydrates for fuel
- Glycolysis: Fuels activity for up to a minute and a half (and generates lactic acid in the process); relies on carbohydrates for fuel
- Aerobic: Fuels activity lasting longer than a minute and a half; relies on carbohydrates and fat for fuel – the higher the intensity, the more carbs that are necessary
I can just feel eyes glazing over – but understanding this information will make matching up your weight loss diet plan and your weight loss exercise plan very easy. When your diet and exercise plans match up, you will lose more weight and feel better, so it is definitely worth learning.
Below, you will discover why this distinction is so important to your dieting success.
Carbohydrates and Weight Loss Exercises
To clarify the information above, you should know that any sort of exercise that lasts under 2 minutes will use entirely carbohydrates for energy (i.e. weight training, sprints, high-intensity intervals, circuit training, “boot camp” classes). This does not mean that they are not useful weight loss exercises (they are) but rather it means that you are actually burning carbohydrates.
If your weight loss exercise program does not include these types of exercise, your diet plan will not require many carbohydrates. The reason why the average person responds so well to low-carb dieting is simply because they rarely engage the energy systems that burn carbohydrates (weight training, interval training, running).
If you are on the opposite end of the spectrum and are working out hard with weight training and intervals and then try to go low-carb for an extended period of time, you will be very fatigued and irritable.
Burning Fat Through Exercises for Weight Loss
On the other hand, low-intensity aerobic exercise burns primarily fat for energy. The body likes to use fat for energy when it can, but it is not always able to. When the body stores energy in the form of fat, this storage form is very efficient, but it also takes the body a long time to actually convert that fat into usable energy.
When you engage in intense exercise, your body does not have time to get many calories out of fat, so it instead prefers to rely on carbohydrates. This is why walking can seem so effective for weight loss: the intensity of the exercise is low enough that the body can fuel it primarily through burning fat.
Exercise for Weight Loss – Which Exercise Type to Pick
Now that we have established a framework for evaluating exercise plans, I will be going over each of the types of exercise mentioned earlier in the article, revealing to you how to incorporate these into your diets and some workout plans that you can use in order to start burning more fat!
Low-Intensity Cardio and Walking
I think that low-intensity cardio is a great thing to add to any diet plan, even for those who are very advanced or only need to lose a little bit of weight. As mentioned, this type of weight loss exercise relies primarily on fat for energy, and as a result it is extremely effective at getting rid of “trouble spots” and stubborn fat that just will not seem to go.
It is a bit ironic actually; typically the people in the gym looking to lose that last bit of fat train very hard, when the truth is adding in some long duration, low-intensity walking or cardio would probably be best from them. On the other hand, people who need to lose a lot of weight are often the ones taking it easy when they would be better off participating in the higher intensity exercises.
High Intensity Cardio – Jogging, Running, Swimming
I am not a big fan of high-intensity cardio for weight loss. It works well for those that need to lose a lot of weight, but people who need to lose a lot of weight typically are not in good enough shape to actually perform this type of exercise.
The biggest problem with this type of exercise is that it burns a lot of carbohydrates and can even burn up protein (i.e. muscle), making it not very effective for sustained, long-term weight loss. The classic example of this is that elite-level sprinters have much more muscle mass and significantly less body fat when compared to marathon runners. Here is a popular picture demonstrating just that:
As you can see in the picture above, despite having very little muscle mass, the marathon runner manages to have a thin layer of body fat, whereas the sprinter on the right has less body fat but much more muscle.
The problem with high-intensity cardio is that is does not tax energy systems which are ideal for weight loss. This type of exercise quickly depletes the glycogen (carbohydrate) content of the muscles and liver. The body can actually extract more energy faster from protein then it can from fat, so when are running hard and dieting simultaneously, you tend to lose muscle mass.
The way around this would be to eat a lot of carbohydrates, but when you do that it can be difficult to lose body fat. No matter how you look at it, jogging is not great for weight loss. If you are obese, you can jog and lose weight quickly (assuming you are fit enough to jog and your body can handle the stress), but if you need to lose less than 30 pounds, jogging and running should not be the bulk of your exercise routine.
Note that there are differences here between women and men. For yet to be discovered mechanisms, women are able to extract energy more readily from fat then men. As a result, women can perform cardio at a slightly higher intensity than men and still use primarily fat for energy. Women, especially petite women, may find some higher intensity cardio is necessary to burn enough calories to lose weight, whereas most men would do better by ignoring this altogether.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
High intensity interval training refers to interspersed periods of very high intensity exercise followed by periods of rest. People often accidentally lump this in with “cardio” simply because it can get your heart rate pretty high and make you breathe very hard.
However, unlike cardio (which taxes aerobic pathways primarily), high intensity interval training maximizes energy output from the glycolytic pathway. This means that in order to qualify as interval training, you should not be able to perform whatever exercise you are performing for more than 1.5 minutes without resting. Note that circuit training often qualifies as this since you are using different muscle groups for different exercises.
High-intensity interval training is great for nearly everyone that needs to lose more than 10 pounds. It burns a lot of calories and sets up favorable conditions for preserving muscle mass (see the picture of the sprinter).
You may be wondering why high-intensity interval training is good considering it relies on carbohydrates for energy. The reason for this is that your body has to spend a lot of calories each day to perform maintenance on the body. When you spend a lot of energy doing something like high-intensity interval training, a lot of your food intake will go towards replenishing lost energy stores. Meanwhile, your body will be burning fat just to provide energy for its cells which are performing maintenance tasks.
To expand on this, your liver (which processes nutrients and metabolizes various products and nutrients) needs energy to run, just like your muscle cells. If your food intake is going towards replenishing lost energy stores, your body will break down fat to help fuel the activity of the liver and other organs. Your liver may also break down fats into energy forms usable by the brain and the heart (which may not be able to use fat as a primary energy source).
To put it simply: you do not burn fat while performing high-intensity interval training, you burn it after exercise while you are resting. It is superior for fat loss to high-intensity cardio training because HIIT tends to spare muscle (too intense to use protein for energy) whereas high-intensity cardio tends to break down muscle (and not in a good way).
Weight training has a lot in common with high-intensity interval training. The main difference between lifting weights and HIIT is that while resistance training burns less calories than HIIT, it offers protective mechanisms against losing muscle mass and may even build muscle mass.
To clarify, when you diet, your body will not burn exclusively fat for energy. It often will burn muscle for energy, for two reasons: protein (which composes muscle tissue) requires less oxygen to turn into energy than fat does (hence why aerobic athletes have little muscle mass), and because muscle mass is caloricly “expensive” to maintain. A pound of muscle burns around 10 calories per day simply being maintained, so your body is smart enough to try to get rid of it when you are dieting.
This is why 300-400 pound people tend to be much stronger than smaller individuals, even if the smaller individuals are very muscular. A linebacker on an NFL team might be very muscular, but the fatter linemen are the strongest players on the team.
Lifting weights helps prevent this muscle breakdown. To make things really simple, when you lift weights, you are telling your body that you need your muscle, and as a result it is more likely to get spared when you are dieting. This is advantageous for long-term weight loss simply because holding onto muscle mass means you burn more calories.
Another thing to consider is that the less body fat you have, the more your body wants to use your muscle mass for energy. When you are very overweight, you can even build muscle and lose fat at the same time. When you are a normal weight and looking to get a six-pack, your body holds onto its fat and tries to get rid of muscle instead.
Due to these factors, the less body fat you have, the more you need to lift weights. Very overweight individuals can make strength and muscle gains by training with weights just 2 times per week, whereas people who do not have much weight to lose happy to maintain their strength and muscle mass when losing fat.
Exercise for Weight Loss – Putting it All Together
Now that you understand the mechanisms behind exercising for weight loss, you will need to find a way to put it all together in a package that makes sense. This summary below will help you create the perfect individualized weight loss plan, matching up your diet and exercise with your specific situation.
For Those That Need to Lose A Lot of Weight (30+ pounds)
If you need to lose a lot of weight, you can engage in as much exercise as you like – just make sure you start slow and work your way up. I recommend starting with walking and slowly adding in weight training.
Once you get in better shape, you can replace walking with higher-intensity exercise (assuming your health allows for this). However, this is not necessary. If you need to lose a lot of weight, you can definitely do so through just walking each day and following a good diet plan.
Speaking of diet plans, if you have no health problems that preclude you from doing this, a relatively low-carbohydrate diet that is high in protein, vegetables (low-carb – not potatoes), fruits, and legumes would be ideal. Some healthy fats are also necessary to make this work; a blend of all three types of fat tends to work best.
If you have a lot of weight to lose and are not doing any exercise beyond walking, you really do not need to eat much in the way of carbohydrates. People who are carrying around a lot of extra body fat tend to be insulin resistant (do not process carbohydrates well), so if you are not burning them through weight training or high-intensity exercise, you really do not need to be taking them in. Fruit and beans can provide the fiber and carbohydrates you need for optimal body function; there is no reason to eat potatoes or grains (it does not matter if they are “whole”) unless you want to slow your weight loss.
For Those That Need to Lose a Moderate Amount of Weight (15-30 pounds)
If you are at the point where you are overweight but not quite obese, you do have different needs than someone who needs to lose a lot of weight. At this point, I recommend performing weight training 2-3x a week (women) or 3-4x per week (men), as well as performing HIIT at least two days a week.
You should have 2-3 off-days at this point where you do not do HIIT or weight training. You can walk on these days as much as you like, but do not take it too far past this. On your weight training days, you may want to add in some carbohydrates. On your off-days, you will want to be low-carb. On all days you should get plenty of protein and non-starchy vegetables. Legumes and fruit can be used to restore carbohydrate stores on “low carb” days.
Now, at this point, you can really do as much walking or low-intensity cardio as you want, but if you want to get really (i.e. 6-pack for men, bikini body for women), then you may want to lay off the cardio at this point until we get to the next section.
For Those That Need to Lose the Last Few Points (less than 15 pounds)
At this point in your weight loss journey, burning off the last few pounds of stubborn body fat requires some particular plan. At this point, you want to be weight training regularly – at least 3x a week for both men and women, perhaps up to 5 times per week. This is not to build muscle mass but rather when you are trying to get to lean, your body really likes to burn up muscle, so this is just to make sure you burn fat instead of muscle. Even men will not build any muscle mass at this phase.
You will also want to do a lot of low-intensity cardio. On a week-by-week basis, increase this amount by 10-20%. For example, you might start this out by walking 30 minutes a day, 5 days per week. You may increase this to 35 minutes a day on week 2, then 40 minutes a day on week 3.
You want to do the bare minimum that lets you lose .5-1 pound per week, just because your body will adjust its metabolism accordingly and really fight to hold onto those last few pounds. This way, when your weight loss stalls out, you can just keep adding in more cardio. If from the very start you are doing 2 hours of cardio every day, what are you going to do when your weight loss stalls out? Move up to 3 hours? It is best to start low and then increase slowly on a weekly basis.
For diet, I recommend carb-cycling to tie in with this approach. This give you carbohydrates after your weight training sessions and have you go low-carbohydrate on off-days. Whenever possible, you would do your cardio in the morning before you eat anything (fasted). This sets up a good environment to burn fat quickly, even the fat that just will not seem to come off.
If this sounds like a lot, keep in mind that getting really lean is difficult and is not for everyone. This is why when you go to the beach you would be lucky to find a single guy that looks like a model on the cover of Men’s Fitness and why women rarely have bodies like that of Victoria’s Secret models (yet alone fitness models).
Here are some specific articles that you can follow along for more details:
- Good Exercises to Lose Belly Fat – Perfect for those who need to lose 30 pounds or less.
Exercise for Weight Loss – The Ultimate Guide to Weight Loss Exercises Wrap-Up
You should now have a good understanding of how to sync up your weight loss diet plan with your exercise plan. Since this article was quite long, here is a quick summary:
For those who are obese and just looking to get down to a healthy weight, it is as simple as walking regularly and not eating too much. Combine this with a low-carb diet plan and the weight will fly off. For extra credit, throw in a few weight training sessions per week.
If you need to drop 15-30 pounds, you can do this through diet and walking alone, but progress will be slow. You will definitely want to look into adding in weight training and even some high-intensity training to really speed up weight loss.
If you are already a healthy weight and just want to drop those last few pounds, you will want to do a lot of weight training and a lot of low-intensity cardio. I recommend combining this with carb-cycling for maximal results.