What kind of exercise - and how much - is best when you're trying to lose weight?
By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
If someone told you right now what the absolute best exercise to lose weight was, would you do it? You might when you read this. Drum roll, please ...
The best exercise to lose weight is: "the exercise you'll do," says Timothy Church, MD, MPH, PhD, a professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La.
Other experts interviewed by WebMD said much the same thing about weight loss workouts.
"The two things that stop people from losing weight with exercise are either boredom or injury," says physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist Ben Quist, PhD, NSCA.
The truth is that weight loss is about creating a calorie deficit -- in other words, burning more calories than you take in. So, they say, while running at an 8-minute-mile pace might be a great calorie burner, if you're not going to do it, it's not going to help you. Instead, start with something you can do, like walking or working out on an elliptical machine or exercise bike.
The Beef on Strength Training
In all cases, however, you'll burn more calories with cardio (aerobic) exercise than with strength or resistance training.
"Strength training itself will not lead to an appreciable amount of weight loss because it just doesn't burn enough calories," says Glenn Gaesser, PhD, FACSM, kinesiology professor and department head at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
But what about all that talk that more muscle mass equates to more calories burned, even when you're at rest?
"It's a myth. It's not going to happen," says Gaesser.
The only successful studies to show a significant calorie burn following a weight-lifting workout (afterburn) were done with serious lifters, working out for 60 to 90 minutes at a time and lifting as much as they could on every set.
In fact, Gaesser says, at best, gaining one pound of muscle will help you burn 5 to 10 extra calories a day. You could do that chewing gum.
That's not to say that strength training isn't important for the overall health of the body. But when it comes to burning the most calories, go for cardiovascular exercise. And vary the intensity, says Quist.
"Do aerobic base-building workouts," he says, where you alternate between moderate and higher intensity, either within the same workout or on alternate days.
Quist also recommends cross-training -- that is, doing a range of different activities during your workouts. Not only does this help you keep from getting bored, it's better for your body. Doing different activities recruits different muscle groups. You're also less likely to develop an injury, says Quist, since doing the same thing day after day creates wear patterns on your joints.
Get creative, says Gaesser, whose graduate students teach an entire class on novel ways to burn calories. For example, he says, if you're a golfer, ditch the cart and walk with your clubs. You'll do what you love -- and burn more calories.
Exercise Is Just One Piece of the Puzzle
Keep in mind that exercise is just one portion of a successful weight loss program, say experts.
"Eating and exercise are not separate issues," says Church. "They're intimately connected. Too many people think these large doses of exercise are an excuse to eat whatever you want."
Unfortunately, today food is everywhere. There are candy bars at Home Depot and cheesecakes at Barnes & Noble. Gaesser says his kids can't believe a gas station used to be just a place to get gas. And portions are out of control, says Church - just look at the size of the plates at restaurants.
"It's so much easier not to eat calories than to burn them off," says Quist.
And keep in mind that the definition of successful weight loss is keeping the weight off.
"It's not hard to lose weight," says Church. "Anyone can lose weight. What's hard is keeping it off. Those that combine both diet and exercise keep it off."
But what about metabolism? Many people who have struggled to lose weight believe they have unusually slow metabolisms.
Chances are, "you don't have a slow metabolism," says Church. "It is so rare that of all the metabolisms we've checked (and he does this daily), I can't remember one being legitimately slow."
The truth is, he says, "bigger people have a higher metabolism because they're bigger. Metabolism is how much mass you have. The more mass you have, the more energy you burn just sitting around."
How Much Do I Need to Exercise for Weight Loss?
Do the math: You need to burn 3,500 calories to lose a pound. So if you're burning 300 calories in one workout, it will take you nearly 12 workouts to lose one pound. If you cut your calorie intake by 300 calories in addition to burning 300, it will take you half as long to lose a pound.
If you want to lose weight, shoot for at least 200 minutes (more than three hours) a week of moderate intensity exercise with everything else consistent, says Church. If you cut calories and exercise, he says, you can get away with a minimum dose of 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) a week.
If you're a beginner, says Gaesser, start with 50 minutes of exercise a week and work up to 200.
"You didn't put on that 20 pounds in the last six months; you're not going to take it off in six months," says Church.
"People don't want to hear about the patience aspect," he says. "They want instant gratification. But the cold, hard reality is if you want to lose weight and keep it off, it's work. No one loses weight and keeps it off without trying."
Here are eight tips to help you adhere to a weight loss workout and meet your goals.
- Have an exercise buddy or partner. This is a must, according to the experts who spoke with WebMD. Having accountability to someone else, even if it's your Labrador, keeps you honest. "It's much easier to say no to yourself than to someone else," says Gaesser, who goes for bike rides regularly with friends.
- Schedule your workouts. Keep a calendar that lists specific times for your workouts, says Gaesser. Make an appointment with exercise ahead of time, and you won't have the excuse of running out of time.
- Weigh yourself daily. This is one of the best tools to see if you're slipping up, Church says. Weighing yourself daily can keep you on track so that you don't let 300 extra calories a day or one missed workout set you back.
- Don't do too much, too fast. Don't get over-motivated, warns Quist. Lifting weights that are too heavy or starting out with six days a week of aerobic exercise is a mistake, says Quist. "People end up hurting themselves in the first week and then they give up," he says.
- Log your steps. Logging the time that you work out will help you achieve your weekly goal, even if you get off track one day, Church says. It will also inspire you at the end of the week, when you can look back and see what you've accomplished.
- Cook more often. Portions, and calories, are out of control when you eat out, says Church. You'll almost always consume fewer calories in a meal cooked and eaten at home. Save restaurants for special occasions, and get together with friends for a walk instead of a meal.
- Don't turn water into wine. Not only does a glass of wine or beer add a couple hundred extra calories, after a few glasses, you're not as conscious of consuming more calories in your meal. You don't have to give up drinking, says Church, but do cut back.
- Beware the one-way valve. You walk past the hors d'oeuvres at a party, grab some cheese and crackers, and quickly consume 300 calories before dinner even starts. "We have no problem randomly over-consuming extreme amounts of calories," says Church, "but we never randomly, sporadically have extreme bouts of caloric expenditure."
Published October 18, 2007.
SOURCES: Timothy Church, MD, PhD, MPH, professor, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Baton Rouge, La. Ben Quist, PhD, NSCA, physical therapist; owner, Form and Fitness, Milwaukee, Wis. Glenn A. Gaesser, PhD, FACSM, professor and director of kinesiology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
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