January is a time when lot’s of us decide to start a new fitness regime to lose weight and feel healthier. But what is the best exercise for weight loss and health? If you look on social media you will see endless photos of “fitness influencers” doing crazy gym workouts and high intensity circuit 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 which makes the picture of weight loss much more complicated. To understand this we need to realise that changing one part of the weight loss equation has an impact on the other elements. And this is why more exercise doesn’t always result in faster weight loss. Our bodies like nothing more than staying balanced or in homeostasis and they will use every power that they have to keep things as they are. Especially when we use extreme tactics such as intense exercise to lose weight, our bodies resist and fight back. I’ll give you some examples of how your body tries to compensate when you exercise intensely:
- It will try to compensate for the energy burned by minimising your natural movements throughout the rest of the day – aka the “active couch potato” syndrome
- It can ramp 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?!
- Over time your metabolism will become more efficient and learn to do more with less energy – this could look like a slowing of your heart rate, reducing body temperature and blood pressure
- For women who exercise intensely, it can result in the body shutting down the “unnecessary” fertility system to save energy and disrupt her menstrual cycles
Does this mean that intense exercise is unhealthy?
No, it just means that it is not necessarily the best exercise for weight loss. Challenging your body through cardiovascular exercise is a good thing and if you want to improve your physical fitness, 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 and won’t help you to reach your health goals. Athletes who train at this level for their job have a whole team to support them to make sure that they get the right nutrition, rest and rehabilitation to keep their body healthy at this level of activity but nowadays it seems like everyone is training like an athlete for the sake of achieving a perfect physique.
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 but you never know what is going on inside. I recently enjoyed watching the journey of Stephanie Buttermore, a well known fitness influencer who admitted that behind the scenes she was struggling with extreme hunger, fatigue and hormonal issues and decided to go “all in” to recover her health. Her issues were more around restrictive eating but this goes hand in hand with exercise. Restrictive eating and over-exercising can have very similar impacts by creating too large an energy deficit for the body to handle without a stress response.
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 and 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.
In my opinion, walking is one of the best exercises for weight loss. Why? Let’s go back to the weight loss equation. Walking is a low intensity exercise which gets our heart rate up into the fat burning zone but not usually to the point where we are out of breath or struggling to speak. This means it is a low stress type of exercise that won’t cause your body to freak out and try to conserve energy or send you signals to over eat to compensate. Walking is a way of moving your body that can fit into your every day life and doesn’t have to separated as 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, maybe you can listen to music that you like or a podcast or chat on the phone. Walking is suitable for all levels of fitness from absolute beginners right up to experienced athletes and 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 and 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 and 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.
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 but 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…
I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your experience with exercise for weight loss and health and what your favourite exercise is.
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- If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me for information on the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.