En español | Hoping to exercise off a few pandemic pounds? First, know this: Experts say it’s very, very challenging — but not impossible — to lose weight through workouts alone. As Kevin Hall, chief of integrative physiology at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), explains, most of us consume so many calories each day that we would have to do “a heck of a lot of physical activity to make a dent” in our body weight.
But that doesn’t mean physical activity shouldn’t be part of your effort to lose weight. In fact, it likely needs to be, since plenty of research shows that the most effective way to drop unwanted pounds is to pair an exercise routine with dietary changes. For example, one study of 439 obese or overweight postmenopausal women found that those who exercised in addition to dieting lost significantly more body fat than those who just dieted.
And exercise appears to be key in helping you keep the weight off once you lose it. When Hall and other NIH researchers analyzed contestants of the reality TV show The Biggest Loser, they found that those who incorporated exercise into their daily lives were significantly more likely to have maintained their weight loss six years later.
The National Weight Control Registry — a database of more than 5,000 Americans who have lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off — also backs up the combination approach. In surveys, 98 percent of participants said they modified their food intake, and 94 percent said they increased their physical activity.
To maximize your own weight-loss efforts with exercise, read on for experts’ tips on everything from which specific fitness activities to combine to how to time your workout for maximum “caloric offset.”
Aim for the sweet spot of 50 minutes a day (it works)
If the bad news is that many people eat back the calories they burn through exercise, unconsciously compensating for the calories a workout required by eating more and moving less for the rest of the day, a new study points to how to avoid this caloric-compensation pitfall.
University of Kentucky researchers recently found that with enough exercise — 300 minutes or more a week — you will still lose weight and burn fat, even if you inadvertently increase your food intake.
For their 2020 study, the researchers assigned one group of overweight people to exercise six days a week for 40 to 60 minutes (or 240 to 360 minutes a week), and another group to exercise for at least 180 minutes a week. Both groups consumed more calories as a result of the extra exertion, but those in the first group lost substantially more weight. The researchers speculated that those participants burned enough calories to offset the extra eating.
Get your heart rate up (without overdoing it)
The basic equation to drop pounds still says you need to burn more calories than you take in, says Deborah Riebe, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island. If you’re walking at a comfortable pace, chances are you’re not burning many calories.
Vigorous activities like biking, running or swimming can really crank up the calorie burn, as can hour-long cardio classes at a gym. But you can boost your calorie output no matter what type of exercise you’re doing by just picking up the pace a bit, Riebe says. “The harder you work, the more calories you burn in a short amount of time.”
One caveat? Doing too much too quickly increases your risk of soreness and fatigue, and makes it more likely that you will get discouraged and burn out, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
So when in doubt, start slowly, advises Joseph Signorile, a professor in the department of kinesiology and sports sciences at the University of Miami, who notes that a gradual increase in intensity can also help you prevent getting sidelined by an injury.
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Include some strength training (twice a week, forever)
In addition to cardiovascular exercise, lifting weights may help you shed pounds. In a study published in June 2021, Iowa State researchers found that middle-aged adults who did muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice a week were 20 to 30 percent less likely to become obese over time.
Why might that be? Your muscle mass drops about 3 to 8 percent per decade after the age of 30. And the loss of muscle really accelerates starting at age 50, Riebe says. Because fat burns fewer calories than muscle, this decrease in strength means your metabolism slows and you burn fewer calories on a daily basis.
When you lose weight, you risk losing even more muscle mass, Riebe says. Adding resistance training to your workout regimen can help prevent that.
Consider high-intensity intervals (slow-to-fast walking counts)
One proven way to get more out of your workout is to do brief bursts of intense exercise followed by periods of slower, less demanding work, says Stephen J. Carter, a cardiovascular physiologist at Indiana University. Called high-intensity interval training or HIIT, it helps you burn more fat than if you exercise at a continuous steady pace, research shows.
Try alternating between walking for three minutes at easy pace and then at a brisk pace for 1 minute, or do similar intervals on a bike, Carter suggests. “It doesn’t need to be super high intensity. It just needs to be at a brisker pace than you can normally sustain for a long period,” he says.
In addition to burning fat, studies indicate HIIT can help regulate insulin, increase heart function and even reverse aging at the cellular level. Some research shows that HIIT workouts also temporarily increase your resting metabolism, so you continue to burn fat after you finish.
Move more and sit less (and set timers to remind you)
Even if you exercise daily, evidence suggests that sitting for long periods increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer and early death. And it certainly isn’t going to help with weight loss. “If you go to the gym and exercise for 30 minutes, that’s great, but if you spend the rest of the day sitting around, that exercise you did from caloric standpoint isn’t going to mean much,” Riebe says.
She and other experts recommend incorporating physical activity throughout the day, whether it’s doing squats during commercial breaks of your favorite TV show, using a fitness app and setting daily step goals, or meeting a friend for a walking date instead of coffee.
“Instead of focusing on weight loss, focus on moving more all day long, and making changes in your lifestyle that you can easily incorporate on a daily basis,” Hall says. “If you can do all those things, chances are the weight on the scale will go down.”
Michelle Crouch is a contributing writer who has covered health and personal finance for some of the nation's top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Prevention, The Washington Post and The New York Times.