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Last updated January 30, 2020. 14 minute read

Exercise for weight loss—as effective as a healthy diet?

Exercise alone is not as effective as dieting in decreasing body weight; however, the two together are more effective at both losing and keeping the weight off. Guidelines recommend that you engage in at least 150–300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity (e.g., brisk walking) or 75–150 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity (e.g., running).

Dr Chimene Richa Md Written by Chimene Richa, MD
Reviewed by Tzvi Doron, DO

Over 70% of American adults are classified as being overweight or obese, as defined by body mass index (BMI) (CDC, 2016). Being overweight (BMI between 25-29.9 kg/m2) or obese (BMI over 30 kg/m2) is considered a chronic medical condition that can lead to other serious health problems, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and strokes. Many people are aware of this weight epidemic; the CDC estimates that almost half of American adults try to lose weight per year (CDC, 2018). You’ve probably been told that the best way to lose weight is diet and exercise–this is true! The underlying idea is that you need to eat fewer calories than you use; in other words, you need to be in a calorie deficit. There are three ways to accomplish this–either eat fewer calories (dieting), burn more calories (by exercising), or do a combination of both (incorporate both dieting and exercise). 

Exercise alone is not as effective for losing weight as dieting, but combining the two works better than either method alone, especially in the long term (Johns, 2014). Also, the ability of exercise to help in losing weight depends on the number of calories you are eating; if you are already on a severely restricted low-calorie diet, adding exercise is not likely to contribute much more to your weight loss (Jakicic, 2018). Studies have shown that exercise is the key to preventing weight gain or preventing weight regain after weight loss (Slentz, 2004). The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is an extensive study of over 5000 people who have lost a minimum of 30 pounds and have maintained that amount of weight loss for at least one year. 90% of people in the NWCR exercise an average of one hour per day (Catenacci, 2008).

Not everyone has the time to exercise for one hour per day. However, doing some physical activity, regardless of the time or intensity, is better than nothing; being physically active is one of the best things that you can do for your health. Regardless of weight loss, engaging in physical activity can reduce your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, cancer, depression, and improve cognitive function (McKinney, 2016). Don’t feel like you have to do it alone; if possible, enlist the advice of a qualified exercise professional to decrease your risk of injury. Consistency is essential; weight loss is a marathon and not a sprint, and it may be challenging to find an exercise routine that works for you. But when you do, stick with it! Start with small manageable goals and work your way up. Before you know it, you’ll be surprising yourself with what you can do.

Vitals

  • Exercise alone is not as effective as dieting in decreasing body weight; however, the two together are more effective at both losing and keeping the weight off.
  • The best exercise to lose weight is the one that you do regularly and consistently.
  • Guidelines recommend that you engage in at least 150–300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity (e.g., brisk walking) or 75–150 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity (e.g., running).
  • Regardless of weight loss, exercising is one of the best things you can do for your health; it can reduce your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, cancer, and depression.

Weight loss exercises

Several exercise options are available. Some you can do at home, while others require a class or a gym. Exercise works to help you lose weight by burning calories to help you get to the point where you are using up more than you are eating. The more vigorous the exercise, the more calories it burns: running burns more calories than walking. A rule of thumb to help you determine if your activity is moderate or vigorous has to do with your breathing. In moderate-intensity exercises, you will notice your heart rate go up, and you will be able to talk, but not sing, during the workout (HHS, 2018). During vigorous-intensity workouts, you cannot say more than a few words without taking a breath, and you will notice your heart rate even higher than during moderate-intensity exercises (HHS, 2018).

There is no single best exercise for everyone–the best exercise is the one that you are able to do and keep doing consistently.

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Walking, jogging, running

Walking, jogging, and running (sometimes referred to as cardio) are perhaps the easiest exercises to incorporate into your daily routine; they can be done anywhere, don’t require any equipment, and they are free. You can go for a walk on your lunch break, jog for 20-30 min around your neighborhood or on a treadmill, or even train for a 5k race. It’s up to you to decide how intense to make your walking, jogging, or running.

A brisk walk is considered a moderate-intensity exercise. Studies show that a cardio (or aerobic) exercise as simple as taking a brisk walk can help you not only lose weight but may also decrease your abdominal fat and waist circumference (Hong, 2014). Increased abdominal fat puts you at higher risk for future health problems. You don’t have to do all of your cardio at one time; another study showed that splitting up a 50-minute walk into two brisk 25-minute walks could be more effective for weight loss (Madjd, 2019). Every minute counts!

Jogging and running are more intense versions of cardio exercise and burn more calories per minute than walking. Jogging is generally a 4-6 mph pace while running is usually faster than a 6-mph pace. Like brisk walking, light jogging can also decrease your abdominal fat (Ohkawara, 2007). However, jogging and running are not for everyone; these are considered vigorous-intensity exercises. Endurance exercises, like jogging and running, have the most effect on BMI — likely due to the increase in calories burned (Lin, 2019). But they are not for everyone — some people have difficulty with the increased intensity and may need to start with walking and work their way up to running. Others have joint problems that prevent them from running outdoors; some treadmills provide cushioning that may make it easier on knees, hips, and ankles. Before you start walking, jogging, or running, check with your healthcare provider regarding any concerns you may have.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a blanket term for exercise regimens that alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercises with periods of rest or low-intensity exercises. HIIT has become a popular method of exercising because of the theory that you can burn more calories in a shorter amount of time. Small studies have shown that HIIT, performed with resistance training, can burn more calories than other traditional moderate-intensity methods of exercising, like walking, cycling, etc. (Falcone, 2015). In some studies, HIIT tends to be more enjoyable than traditional continuous exercise (Roy, 2018). However, many studies report that HIIT induces the same amount of weight loss as traditional moderate-intensity continuous methods (Petridou, 2019). 

Since HIIT takes 40% less of a time commitment on average, it may be an option for people who do not exercise due to time restraints (Wewege, 2017). HIIT uses high-intensity workouts, so you may need to consult your healthcare provider before starting this type of workout; most people start at a moderate intensity and work their way up to high intensity gradually to reduce the risk of injury. It is important to remember that both HIIT and traditional moderate-intensity training lead to more weight loss than not exercising, so choose an activity that you can keep doing long term (Petridou, 2019).

Strength training

Strength training alone is unlikely to stimulate enough of a calorie burn to cause appreciable weight loss compared to aerobic exercise (Swift, 2018). However, strength training, also called resistance training or weight training, does have health and weight benefits. It can help you burn fat, build muscle, and get stronger (Petridou, 2018). The increased muscle mass, along with other factors, may increase your resting (or basal) metabolic rate (RMR); your RMR is the number of calories your body burns at rest (Petridou, 2018). If you increase your RMR, then you should burn more calories, putting you into a calorie deficit and leading to weight loss. One study showed that a 9-month strength training program led to an average RMR increase of 5% (Aristizabal, 2015). Studies show that incorporating both strength training and aerobic exercise (brisk walking or jogging) with a low-calorie diet has a higher chance of leading to weight loss than dieting alone (Luglio, 2017). 

Strength training can use any combination of bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc. during the workouts. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that you incorporate strength training (e.g., weight lifting, pushups) into your exercise routine two or more days per week (HHS, 2018). Strength training may also help you maintain your weight loss in the long term. Before starting a strength training regimen, be sure to discuss your plans with your healthcare provider regarding your risk of injury.

Cycling

Another popular form of aerobic exercise is cycling, with both indoor and outdoor options. You have probably heard of spinning classes, which are a form of indoor cycling. Cycling appeals to many people because, if performed outdoors, you can take advantage of beautiful scenery, fresh air, and travel a fair distance. Indoor cycling advocates like that it is a non-weight bearing and low-impact (but not necessarily low-intensity), so it can be more comfortable on your joints. Studies show that cycling combined with dieting may improve fitness, cholesterol levels, and encourage weight loss (Chavarrias, 2019).

Swimming

If you are looking for a low-impact exercise, swimming is another option. Depending on the stroke and your intensity, you can burn a good number of calories. Like other forms of exercise, swimming can improve your fitness, decrease your body fat, and improve your cholesterol levels (Lee, 2015). However, one study looking at various exercises and their effects on Body Mass Index (BMI) found that swimming did not decrease BMI as much as jogging or walking (Lin, 2019). Regardless, swimming can be a fun and low-impact way to incorporate more physical activity into your lifestyle.

Yoga

Yoga is an alternative form of physical activity that many use to improve both physical and mental health. Yoga focuses on breathing, posture, and often promotes healthy lifestyle advice. In a review of over 30 articles about the health benefits of yoga, they found statistically significant changes in the BMI of obese/overweight yoga practitioners (Lauche, 2016). Another study found that participating in longer yoga sessions (over 60 minutes) was associated with a decrease in BMI (Lin, 2019). Yoga may be a useful tool for sustained weight loss as people who practice yoga are not only more active, but may experience less stress (and stress eating), a reduced appetite, a mental shift towards healthier eating, and feel a sense of social support (Ross, 2016).

Pilates

Initially developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1930s (under the name “Contrology”), Pilates is a popular form of exercise and emphasizes the following basic principles: concentration, control, center, flow, precision, and breathing. One study showed that Pilates decreased BMI and body weight compared to no exercise at all in overweight and obese women (Savkin, 2017). Some report that Pilates improves muscle tone, core strength, and overall fitness. However, studies report no improvement in the amount of fat, muscle, etc. in the body (Aladro-Gonzalvo, 2012). Despite the lack of evidence, if Pilates is your favorite way to exercise, keep it up. Any exercise is better than no physical activity. If you are aiming to lose weight, combine your Pilates with dietary changes, and try to incorporate other moderate-intensity exercises, like brisk walking, when possible.

How often should I exercise to lose weight?

As mentioned earlier, 90% of people in the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) stated that they exercise an average of one hour per day (Catenacci, 2008). Studies have shown that it takes 80 minutes of moderate exercise or 35 minutes of vigorous exercise per day to help with weight maintenance (Loveman, 2011). The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that the workout routine for adults include at least 150–300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity (e.g., brisk walking) or 75–150 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity (e.g., running) (HHS, 2018). Also, you should incorporate strength or resistance training exercises of the major muscle groups (upper body, lower body, core, etc.) into your workout routine at least two days per week. About 80% of adults and teenagers do not meet these recommendations.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)

For some people, going to the gym or doing a formal workout program just doesn’t fit into their lives. Fortunately, there is still a way to benefit from being more active throughout the day via low-level daily physical activity, otherwise known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT is the calories we burn doing activities that we may not think about, including:

  • Changing position (standing, walking, stair climbing, spontaneous muscle contractions, fidgeting) 
  • Cleaning
  • Singing
  • Other activities of daily living

Each activity usually lasts minutes to hours and typically does not burn that much energy; however, if you add up all of the time spent, you can see up to an additional 350 kcal/day burned (Chung, 2018). Every minute counts. Studies show that people who are obese or overweight tend to sit still for longer periods of time and have lower levels of NEAT (Chung, 2018). Changing this, by standing up and walking around or doing your computer work at a standing desk instead of sitting, can increase your NEAT and lead to weight loss over time. For instance, when you sit, stand, or walk, you increase the number of calories you burn by up to 10%, 20%, and 200%, respectively, compared to resting levels (Chung, 2018). Here are some suggestions for incorporating NEAT into your everyday routine:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Park your car at the far side of the parking lot and walk to the building entrance
  • Stand when working on your computer, paying bills, folding laundry, etc
  • Stand up and pace when on phone calls; consider standing meetings instead of traditional sitting meetings whenever possible
  • Spend part of your lunch hour walking

The biggest advantage of NEAT as a way to burn calories is that it doesn’t require you to commit to an exercise plan or workout; in fact, NEAT has a higher rate of people sticking with it over the long term compared with traditional exercise methods (Chung, 2018). More research is needed in this area to further determine the best way to incorporate NEAT into a weight loss regimen.

Tips for staying consistent with workouts

For any workout plan to work, you need to be consistent. Even if you can’t hit the recommended numbers, anything is better than nothing. Start small and work your way up, gradually increasing time and intensity — don’t forget to warm up and stretch to prevent injuries. Another way to prevent injury is to seek the help of an exercise professional; injury is a common reason that people stop exercising. Remember to be safe and listen to your body; if you injure yourself, you are going to be exercising even less while you recover. Here are some tips to stay consistent with your exercise routine:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider about your fitness level and appropriate fitness goals.
  • Seek out the advice of an exercise professional to prevent injury
  • Build physical activity into your daily routine; you are more likely to do the exercise if they are part of your routine rather than having to rearrange your life to get in the workouts.
  • Schedule a time to work out that is reasonable and practical; getting up at 4 am every morning may not be a sustainable option for some people.
  • Incorporate different types of exercises–combine strength training and aerobic exercises.
  • Switch things up every now and then to prevent boredom; try different workouts, or take a new exercise class.
  • Find a workout buddy–exercising can be more fun with a friend!
  • Keep track of your workouts; this will help you see your improvement, even if the numbers on the scale aren’t moving as fast as you’d like.
  • Don’t forget to rest and give yourself recovery days.
  • Remember that your body is not a machine; listen to what it is telling you, and if you are not feeling well or have pain, then stop.
  • Don’t get discouraged if you have an off day or don’t work out for a day or two; get back to the routine when you can.

Exercise combined with dietary changes can help you lose weight and keep that weight off long-term. The best exercise is the one that you enjoy and keep doing. Even without weight loss, being physically active is one of the best things you can do for your health. Exercising can lower your risk for hypertension, stroke, cancer, depression, diabetes, and it can even lengthen your life with or without weight loss (McKinney, 2016). Get your healthcare provider, family and friends involved, and you can be well on your way to losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle.