WEIGHT MANAGEMENT ∙ 4 minutes read

What is the best exercise to lose weight?

By Ashton Sheriff | Medically reviewed by Dr Luke Pratsides

Put on a few extra pounds during the pandemic? If you answered “yes” you’re not alone. In fact, more than 40% of adults in England gained weight during the pandemic, with the average weight gain being over 3kg (which is equivalent to a newborn baby). 

But why did so many of us pile on the pounds? One reason may be that many of us were extremely stressed. Evidence suggests stress causes our bodies to metabolise food slower, and stress - as well as high cortisol levels - are associated with increased belly fat

Another reason is likely to be that the majority of us spent a lot more time sitting indoors and being less active. Even simple day-to-day activities such as walking to and from work, running errands, and seeing friends burn calories and contribute to keeping us in shape. During the pandemic, however, these activities were limited and the extra calories that would otherwise have been burned were stored up as fat. 

If pandemic weight gain (or just general weight gain) has you feeling like you need to trim down a bit, then don’t worry. One of the healthiest and most sustainable ways to lose weight is through exercise. 

But what is the best exercise to lose weight? Keep reading. The answer might just transform your life.

Exercises for weight loss: aerobic vs resistance training

Before we spill the beans on which weight loss exercises are best, let’s quickly cover two main types of exercise - aerobic exercise and resistance training. It’s good to be aware of the difference between the two because we’ll compare them later to determine which is more effective for losing weight.

  • Aerobic exercise: more commonly known as “cardio”, aerobic exercise relies on oxygen to help your muscles produce energy. Examples of aerobic exercise include jogging, swimming, and cycling. 

  • Resistance training: resistance training is typically referred to as “weight lifting”. However, it also includes anything else that places resistance on your muscles, such as calisthenics and yoga. 

When people think of losing weight and weight management, they usually think cardio (aerobic exercise) is the only way to go about it. Cardio is great for weight loss, but many people don’t realise that it can also be combined with resistance training (e.g. weight lifting, calisthenics, etc.) to help with weight management, too.

The question that’s no doubt on your mind at this point is “but which one is better for weight loss? Aerobic exercise or resistance training?”

Let’s answer that with some cold, hard science.

Science’s verdict on weight loss exercises

Studies show that aerobic exercise (AKA cardio) is the most effective form of exercise for weight loss in overweight and obese adults. 

After completing an eight-month programme of either (1) aerobic exercise, (2) resistance training, or (3) a combination of the two, researchers found that aerobic exercise was the most efficient and effective way to slim down. 

Another meta-analysis (a type of scientific paper that combines the results of many studies) confirmed aerobic exercise is better at reducing visceral fat than resistance training. Visceral fat is fat that is stored deep inside the belly and surrounds vital organs like the liver and intestines. It can produce toxic substances that are harmful to the body, increasing the risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and cancer. It can also make your belly poke out, making it rounder in appearance. People who eat more calories than they burn, as well as those who drink a lot of alcohol, are more likely to have higher amounts of visceral fat. 

Luckily, as the meta-analysis demonstrates, it’s possible to burn visceral fat through aerobic exercise. This is because aerobic exercise makes your body use the fats that are stored within it as a source of energy. This prevents excess calories from being stored as fat and helps you to stay within a calorie deficit - a state where you burn more calories than you consume. Being in a calorie deficit is ultimately the factor that allows you to lose weight. 

But exercise isn’t just good for trimming down. It’s also likely to help reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, especially if you’re overweight or obese. One study estimated that people who are obese are 12% more likely to develop coronary heart disease and 24% more likely to suffer a stroke. Exercise can reduce the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease (such as high blood pressure) so that you’re less likely to experience health issues in the future. 

The bottom line

According to scientific research, aerobic exercise (cardio) is the type of exercise for weight loss. When compared with resistance training (weightlifting), aerobic exercise resulted in greater weight loss in overweight and obese adults.

Examples of aerobic exercises include jogging, rowing, and cycling. When choosing the right aerobic exercises for you, remember to take your level of fitness into consideration. If you’re not used to exercising, you may want to start off with something light such as walking or swimming. As you get stronger and your endurance builds up, you can then try more vigorous forms of aerobic exercise such as running or tennis. 

Remember: exercising doesn’t have to be a chore. There are many fun types of aerobic exercises out there to try. Finding one that you enjoy will make the process of weight loss much more enjoyable, and you might even pick up a new hobby in the process. 

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