I’ve had a few clients ask me for help with weight loss recently, and the question always comes up about what type of exercise is best for weight loss. It’s a difficult question because the answer is not simple. Exercise is important as part of a weight management programme, but you can’t rely solely on exercise to lose weight. If you’re not eating well or eating too much, you can’t exercise away a bad diet. However if you’re not doing any exercise and relying on diet alone to lose weight this can work, but you’ll end up flabby and shapeless. So you need to look at both.
From my many years experience as a fitness enthusiast, the best programme I’ve come across has been from Mark Sissons Primal Fitness. He’s created an exercise pyramid that incorporates aerobic or cardiovascular fitness, strength building, power and anaerobic fitness. In terms of weight management and improvements to health and metabolism, the benefits of each of these types of exercise are as follows:
Aerobic or cardiovascular fitness is any type of exercise that increases blood flow and oxygen use throughout your body. Anything that gets your body moving, and you can continue a conversation while you do it, is aerobic. At this time of the year as the weather becomes more conducive to being outdoors, activities such as walking, hiking, biking, gardening, and swimming are more enjoyable. Aerobic type exercise is essential for your foundation fitness, and is the first thing you should work on before anything else. You don’t have to go hard out – walking is the new running! Ideally, you should be doing about an hour per day of aerobic activity. I’m a big fan of fitness trackers such as the Fitbit to keep an eye on your daily activity. Aiming for 10,000 steps per day is a good level of general activity.
In terms of weight management and metabolism, aerobic activity preferentially burns body fat.
Strength training – as Mark Sisson puts it ‘lift heavy things’. Strength training builds muscle, which gives your body good shape and texture. You can use body weight exercises, free weights (dumbbells and barbells), weight machines, or resistance bands for building strength. I tend to prefer free weights and body weight exercises as they help with stability, balance, and co-ordination as well as building muscle. While strength building exercises burn mostly carbohydrates, the increased muscle mass increases your overall metabolism so you burn more calories while resting. Strength training should be done 2 – 4 times per week for 20 – 40 minutes each session. It’s best to have a qualified exercise consultant or personal trainer design a programme for you and show you how to do the exercises properly.
Sprints. A sprint is anything done at 100% intensity for 20 seconds to 2 minutes. When most people think of sprints they think running, but you can also do swimming, cycling, or rowing sprint intervals. One of my favourite types of sprint and power training is Tabata, in which you do 20 seconds 100 % effort followed by 10 seconds rest, repeated 8 times – a total of 4 minutes.
High intensity interval training or HIIT combines strength training and sprints into a single workout. In the HIIT classes at the gym I go to, we use varying intervals of body weight exercises (e.g. burpees or press ups), free weights (e.g. squat and press), and step boxes (e.g. jump up and over) combined with aerobic intervals (e.g. running or jumping). There are so many variations of exercises to do it never gets boring, and certainly keeps you on your toes!
The metabolic benefit of sprints and interval training is that they build muscle, improve anaerobic fitness, and it’s the best type of exercise for shifting stubborn body fat. Although you’re primarily burning carbohydrates at the time of training, in the period after training, you increase your ability to burn body fat for up to 48 hours afterwards. This is called the EPOC – exess post-exercise oxygen consumption otherwise known as the ‘afterburn’.
Because of the intense nature of HIIT training, I would recommend joining a gym class or a bootcamp group rather than trying to motivate yourself to do it at home. With all the good intentions in the world, I wouldn’t train myself as hard at home as I do at the gym! It’s also important to train at your own level. A good gym instructor provides choices to cater for varying fitness levels within the same class, and there’s no judgement if you’ve just joined and are not as fit as the regular attendees.
To put it all together, a good programme for improving health and metabolism to aid weight management would be to aim for at least an hour of exercise per day. Going for a daily walk or bike ride would be a great habit to get into. I would recommend that if you’re serious about getting fit or losing body fat, join a gym or boot camp group. There’s a lot more motivation to attend if you’re paying for it, or if you’re meeting someone there. You’ll also be more likely to work out harder with a trainer or gym instructor than you would on your own. Two or three HIIT or boot camp sessions per week would be an excellent add-on to your daily walk or cycle.
So these are my recommendations for a good all round exercise programme to help with weight management. You can do more if you like – I add in a couple of yoga classes per week, plus we do weekend activities that are a lot more fun if we’re already in shape. To me, being fit and active is a lifestyle choice. It’s not something I do short term to lose weight; it’s something I do regularly to feel good and stay in shape. Let me know your thoughts.