January is a time when lot’s of us decide to start a new fitness regime. We want to lose that holiday weight and feel healthier. But what is the best exercise for weight loss and health? In the online fitness world you see endless photos of “influencers” doing crazy workouts and high intensity training. They get millions of likes when they share photos of their toned thighs and shredded abs. But is it really necessary to train like an athlete to reach your goals? And is intense exercise for weight loss truly healthy?
The answer is, it depends! When it comes to weight loss, it always comes down energy out vs. energy in. Simply put, to lose weight, you need to burn more energy (calories) than you eat from food. In other words, your net energy must be negative to lose weight.
But the catch is that our bodies are far from simple machines. This makes the picture of weight loss much more complicated. To understand this, you need to realise that changing one part of the weight loss equation has an impact on the rest. And this is why more exercise doesn’t always result in faster weight loss. Your body like nothing more than staying balanced or in homeostasis. Therefore, it will use every power it has to keep things as they are. Especially when you use extreme tactics such as intense exercise to lose weight. You body will resist and fight back.
How your body responds to exercise for weight loss
I’ll give you some examples of how your body tries to compensate when you exercise intensely. Your body:
- Minimises your natural movements throughout the rest of the day – aka the “active couch potato” syndrome
- Ramps up your hunger hormones and decrease the hormones which make you feel full and satiated to make you eat more than usual after your exercise. Familiar with that bottomless pit hunger after working out intensely?!
- Makes your metabolism efficient and learns to survive using less energy. This could look like a slowing of your heart rate, reducing body temperature and blood pressure
- Slows or shuts down unnecessary functions like hair growth, cell repair and menstrual cycles
Does this mean that intense exercise is not the best exercise for weight loss and health?
Yes, intense exercise it is not necessarily the best exercise for weight loss. Challenging your body through cardiovascular exercise is a good thing. If you want to improve your physical fitness, moderate to high intensity exercise is great a few times a week. But slogging it out in the gym for 1-2 hours every day to burn as many calories as possible is more likely to be a stress on your body. This won’t help you to reach your health goals!
Athletes who train at this level for their job have a whole team to take care of them. It’s a full-time job to get the right nutrition, rest and rehabilitation to keep their body healthy at this level of activity. Nowadays it seems like everyone is training like an athlete for the sake of achieving a perfect physique. And your average Joe doesn’t have this level of support! This can result in injuries and chronic illness in those that over-excercise. I always say to stay aware that things you see online may not always be as they seem. People that you admire or compare yourself to might look healthy and fit on the outside. However, you never know what is going on inside.
I recently enjoyed watching the journey of Stephanie Buttermore. She is a well known fitness influencer who admitted that behind the scenes she was struggling with extreme hunger, fatigue and hormonal issues. She decided to go “all in” to recover her health as I did when recovering from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. Her issues were around restrictive eating and not eating enough to support her level of training. Restrictive eating and over-exercising can have very similar impacts. Extrememes in both can create too large an energy deficit for the body to handle. This creates a stress response and can lead to a cascade of other issues.
So what is the best exercise for weight loss and health?
To start with, I’d say any exercise that you genuinely enjoy and will stick to. It’s much better to build a sustainable habit of working out for 30 minutes three times a week that to go all out and exercise every day then give up after a week. With exercise for weight loss and health, consistency is key! Everyone is different and we all like different things. Some people really enjoy working out at the gym, others prefer running or cycling outdoors. You might like taking your dog on long walks or walking in the park with a friend.
For me, dancing and yoga are the two ways of moving my body that I really love. These activities don’t feel like exercise at all! I also love walking outside whether that’s a stroll around the area or a long hike in nature. The best exercise for weight loss is one that doesn’t feel like exercise but is a fun part of your life.
Walking is the best exercise for weight loss
In my opinion, walking is one of the best exercise for weight loss. Why? Let’s go back to the weight loss equation. Walking is a low intensity exercise which gets your heart rate up into the fat burning zone. However it is not usually to the point where you are out of breath or struggling to speak. This means it is a low stress type of exercise. Walking won’t cause your body to freak out and try to conserve energy or send you signals to over eat to compensate.
Going for a walk is a way of moving your body that can fit into your every day life. It doesn’t have to labelled as exercise or a workout. You can walk to work or to the shops, or you can meet a friend for a lunch time walk. Walking doubles as time to relax and to move your body too. You can listen to music that you like or a podcast or chat on the phone while you walk. Walking is suitable for all levels of fitness from absolute beginners right up to experienced athletes. Plus, it’s completely free!
If your goal is to lose weight, start by walking for 30 minutes every day and see how you feel. You can then add in other exercise that you enjoy to mix things up and have fun. Moving your body should be enjoyable and afterwards you should feel tired but not completely exhausted. If you are feeling totally depleted after your workouts then it’s probably a sign that you are over doing it for your current level of fitness. This is a sign to tone it down or you could risk burn out or injury.
If you are also trying to change your diet to eat healthier, go easy on yourself! It’s much harder to make healthier food choices when your body is starving after an intense workout. Often we can fall into the trap of binge eating on energy dense foods such as sweets and processed food. We want to be gentle and work with our bodies rather than against them. So always check in with how you feel after a workout and go from there.
Daily challenge: Go for a walk!
So your challenge for today is simply to go for a mindful walk. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for 10 minutes or an hour. Just be sure to pay attention to your surroundings and to how you feel in your body and mind afterwards. Notice whether you feel fatigued or energised and whether your stress levels have increased or decreased.
Over to you…
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