When it comes to weight loss, exercise matters — just maybe not in the way we’re used to thinking about it. Research has shown that what you eat plays a bigger role initially, but when it comes to keeping off the excess baggage, brisk walking is every bit as important as downing a bowlful of fresh greens.
“Diet-only weight loss programs produce both fat loss, which is good, as well as muscle loss, which is bad because it lowers the metabolic rate and almost always leads to full weight regain, which is bad,” explains Wayne Westcott, professor of exercise science at Quincy College in Quincy, Mass.
To get the biggest bang for your weight loss buck, says Westcott, start a reasonable diet program (with plenty of protein), combined with cardio and strength training. But before embarking on any weight loss regimen — particularly if it involves high-intensity exercise — be sure to get the green light from your doctor.
Ready to get moving?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that most Americans get at least 150 minutes a week of physical activity, most of that in the form of aerobic exercise, with strength exercises two or more times a week. But that may be a threshold to work up to.
“Start with where you are, at a level that’s achievable — not where you think you should be,” says Janet Hamilton, exercise physiologist and founder of Running Strong Professional Coaching. “You can start a running program at age 60, but you have to build up your stamina and strength. It isn’t a process that happens over days; it happens over weeks.”
Your initial goal, she says, might be to walk for 30 minutes continuously, five days a week, although “you may have to start by breaking that 30 minutes a day into two 15-minute sessions.” Whatever distance you begin with, the pace shouldn’t feel punishing, she says. At the end of your walk, nothing should hurt, and you should feel invigorated, not spent. "If I was standing there, as you crossed an imaginary finish line and I said, ‘Oops, I mismanaged the course, you have another half mile to go,’ you shouldn’t have the urge to shoot me,” Hamilton says.
Step it up, gradually
Once your daily strolls stop sending the needle downward on the scale, or if they start to feel downright easy, you’ll want to vary the intensity a bit. Try rotating short bursts of high-intensity, fast-paced walking with slower recovery periods. Doing so sends your heart rate soaring and torches calories, says Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and author of Beat the Gym. He suggests alternating several rounds of walking hard for 10 seconds (at an intensity that makes conversation possible, but not easy) with recovering for 50 seconds.
Another trick is to take your walk outside, which experts say will tend to be more challenging than working out on a treadmill. Something like trail walking, with uneven terrain, will force you to work harder and will also improve your balance. Tackle hills and you can increase your calorie burn even more. Just “don’t attempt a hill that’s going to kick your butt,” says Hamilton, who notes that avoiding burnout is key for the long haul. Start with a few small hills that take about 30 to 60 seconds to walk up, and climb with as much effort as you use to walk on flat terrain.
Work in something new
Doing too much of one thing not only leads to boredom but can cause you to stall in your weight loss and fitness goals. “The body is a very smart machine, and when it becomes more efficient at walking, it burns fewer calories,” says Holland. “When people hit that dreaded plateau it’s because they’re doing the same thing and their bodies are getting better at it.”
At this point, variety is key to results. “Alternating different types of cardio activities keeps things interesting and works different muscle groups in different ways, which burns more calories,” says Steve Lischin, co-owner of Great Jones Fitness in New York City, who notes that mixing it up also lowers your risk of repetitive stress injuries.
Adding a new class at the gym to your regimen might be ideal, but you can also battle a weight loss standstill by sneaking in extra small bouts of cardio throughout the day, says Sabrena Jo, director of science and research content at the American Council on Exercise. If you work in a multilevel building, try consistently using the bathroom on the floor above your office. Or drive past that great parking space at the mall and pick one further from the entrance. It all adds up!
About those muscles …
You can’t ignore the second half of the fitness equation: Strength training, which keeps muscle mass and bone density at their peak to help fend off pounds. And strength training is especially important since we naturally start to lose muscle as we age.
A great place to start is with a tutorial on the weight machines at a gym. (Don't be afraid to ask for help or even pay for a one-time training session on them.) Doing so, says Hamilton, helps you establish the proper form safely. “Machines are good for beginners because they determine the path of motion that the limb will go through. They’re rigged to go a certain way, so you don’t have to balance the weight or be in control of the arc of motion,” says Hamilton, who often starts people on machines or body-weight exercises, then gradually adds additional resistance in the form of free weights or elastic exercise bands.
Target big-bang muscles
As you get stronger, know that working in exercises that target large muscle groups, such as your glutes and quadriceps, can have big payoffs. The more muscle recruited during an exercise, the more calories burned.
Sit-to-stand exercises like squats are phenomenally productive, says Hamilton. Likewise, lunges. “They mimic our walking pattern, and that’s great for balance and fall prevention,” says Jo, who suggests doing the move in different directions — forward or to the side. For a simpler starting point, try an opposite arm and leg raise from a position of all fours.
When doing these exercises, work to fatigue with no loss of form. Aim to build up to two to three sets of 10 repetitions. Doing them “three times a week is optimal, but twice a week is better than not all,” says Lischin. “You can start with as little as 10 minutes, and it’s important not to do too much too soon. You can always increase your time.”
And don’t forget to stretch
Studies show that stress can lead to food cravings — and the excess poundage that goes with them. But research from the University of Washington found that those who practiced yoga regularly are better at mindful eating, that is, only chowing down when they’re hungry.
So substitute a yoga class for a walk, and you’ll even get some strength-building benefits from a session. Yoga, according to Jo, employs “an active flexibility technique,” a fancy term that basically means using the strength of your own muscles to hold your position. What’s more, as a whole body experience, yoga also takes “your muscles and joints through a range of motions that help with flexibility,” says Jo, making you that much more ready to face the gym or walking path tomorrow.