Remember: Healthy, sustainable weight loss takes more than exercise—but these workouts can help you reach your goals.

By Julia Sullivan, CPT
February 08, 2021
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When it comes to weight loss—the healthy, sustainable, not-gimmicky kind—it's tempting to want a quick fix with as few changes as possible. For many, that means turning to products (think: exercise programs, trendy how-to books, or commercialized foods and drinks), none of which offer safe, lasting results.

Real talk: The road to actual, sustainable weight loss is pretty unsexy and not-so-straightforward, Liz Davis, a clinical exercise physiologist in Columbus, Ohio, tells Health. "Weight loss is largely dependent on the balance between the calories you consume and the calories you expend," she says.

What this means: Despite how buff your cycling instructor or the Instagram model peddling a skinny tea looks, trendy products alone won't contribute to weight loss. Rather, it depends on your ability to maintain a continuous calorie deficit—which basically means that you're ingesting fewer calories than your body needs to maintain general body functions. Of course, that also means if you're consuming more calories than your body needs to function, you'll gain weight.

But it's not just a matter of calories-in, calories-out: A whole host of other factors also play a role in how your body loses weight. According to Harvard Medical School, a personal or family history of of being overweight, along with hormonal disorders, environmental factors, psychological wellbeing, and even certain prescription medications can hinder attempts to lose weight.

That said, a calorie deficit remains king when it comes to weight loss—and your diet is the largest contributing factor. "Think about it: To burn 100 calories, you might need to walk for 45 minutes" says Davis. "To consume 100 calories, all you need is a few spoons of ice cream." But that doesn't mean exercise can't at least assist in helping you reach your weight loss goal, if you have one—as long as you're choosing the right kind. Here, experts weigh in on the best exercises to help you lose weight.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

Cardio interval training—aka high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is basically a one-two punch for exercise: short and mega-effective. The cardio-based workout alternates between short (but intense) bursts of energy, and less intense (or resting) breaks in between.

"High-intensity interval training, or cardio interval training, is the most scientifically sound way to burn more calories while exercising," explains Davis. She notes that, in a short burst, your heart rate skyrockets and your temperature rises—two physiological variables that will temporarily boost your metabolism. "You're disturbing your body's homeostasis during internal training," she explains. "In the hours after exercise, your body is working to get back there." In fact, one 2017 study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that your calorie burn during high-intensity interval training will extend way past your final minute of working out longer than if you had maintained a steady pace throughout your exercise duration.

The best part? You don't need to sign up for a boot camp class or flail around (and piss off your neighbors) in your apartment. This type of cardio training can be applied to walking, running, indoor cycling, walking, rowing, the elliptical—the list of mediums is virtually endless. The only important rule to HIIT training that you adhere to is that you move in intervals, says Davis.

"Although the optimal interval depends on the individual and their experience and comfort level with high-intensity cardio training, a good go-to is about one minute on and two minutes off to start," she explains, noting that, as your endurance increases, you can move to a 1:1 or even 1:30 ratio.

Try it with the 1:1 ratio using a treadmill, for example: Walk or run at a moderately intense pace (say, 75 to 85 percent of your maximum effort—breathing hard but not out of breath) for approximately one minute. Then, retreat to a comfortable walking pace (your breathing returns to normal or attempts to get there) for another minute. Continue that pattern for 30 minutes, and, voila! A super-simple HIIT workout has been achieved.

Weight training

While you won't burn the trove of calories you would in a cardio interval training session, with weight training, a more long-term (and maybe even more sustainable) burn is at play.

According to a 2019 review of studies published in the journal Metabolism, there's a strong connection between your muscle mass and resting metabolic rate, which is how many calories you are burning at rest (FYI: Resting calorie expenditure accounts for roughly three quarters of your daily caloric output—so it plays a major role in your ability to lose weight).

So in that sense, the more muscle mass you have (brought forth by resistance training), the easier you'll be able to control your weight. "With weight training, the more lean muscle you have, the more you'll be able to eat flexibly without seeing weight gain. Simply put: You're burning more calories at rest," Davis says.

And the heavier you lift, the better. A study in the Journal of Translational Medicine found that lifting heavier weights for six or fewer repetitions at a time resulted in an increased calorie burn for study participants—even once the workout session was over.

And according to Norma Lowe, CPT, trainer and certified sports nutritionist, that slow burn is the true key to weight loss. "The magic happens in the recovery phase. In other words, if you put all your effort into calorie reduction, you'll end up hitting a plateau eventually. Your resting metabolic rate will slow to a crawl."

Yoga, pilates, and stretching 

Full disclosure: Yoga, Pilates, and general stretching aren't going to help you burn like cardio interval and weight training can. But they can make you stronger and more limber to execute those exercises with precision and confidence, explains Davis.

"Any kind of strengthening and stretching is beneficial for weight loss because it will make your body stronger and more limber," she says. "This makes it possible to tackle your cardio and weight sessions with more intensity."

And while Davis notes that your caloric expenditure won't be particularly high during a yoga session, it's still a form of resistance training (you're just using your body and gravity to supplement a lack of weights).

And the most important workout for weight loss: the one you enjoy

While high-intensity training (whether it's cardio- or resistance-based) will definitely fuel any weight loss efforts in the short-term, if you aren't finding joy in the workout you're doing, chances are, you won't do it consistently. And that's the most predictable factor when it comes to weight loss, research shows.

A study found in the journal Obesity found that a stable, consistent exercise routine (paired with a regular healthy eating regimen) was the most substantial factor in long-term weight management.

"The workout you're going to stick to is the one you really love," Davis says. "When clients ask me what the best workout for weight loss is, I can tell them that certain workouts will burn more calories. But in the end, the best workout for losing weight is the one that makes you feel the best and you love to do."

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