What's the best exercise for weight loss?

Best exercise for weight loss: Image shows man running on treadmill
(Image credit: Getty)

You’d think there would be a clear cut answer when looking at the best exercise for weight loss. One exercise to rule them all; a one-way ticket to cutting calories and ending up with a slimmer you. But as with most things health and fitness based, it’s not that simple.

Nutrition plays a more than significant part in weight loss, genetics too. Some take to other exercises for weight loss better than others. There’s an ever-growing list of the best exercise machines for weight loss to consider. The list goes on. The best smart scales can also be helpful to track your progress, with high-tech insights into body composition.

Luckily, we have science and the practical knowledge of health and fitness professionals to help guide us. Here we go through the reams of research then, and take a deep dive into this oft-wondered topic with the help of Luke Hughes, co-founder of OriGym.

Luke Hughes
Luke Hughes

Luke is the CEO and Co-Founder of OriGym. Holding a first-class degree in Sport and Exercise and an MSc in Sport and Nutrition, he is also qualified as a Level 4 Personal Trainer with various specialist credentials covering the entire spectrum of health, fitness and business.  

How exercise contributes to weight loss

So, let’s start simple. Exercise can lead to weight loss due to the simple fact that physical activity increases the number of calories your body uses for energy.

“Doing high levels of physical activity can help to put you in a calorie deficit,” explains Hughes, “meaning you're consuming fewer calories than you burn, which will result in weight loss. 

“Reducing your calorie intake and increasing the amount of physical activity you do, essentially moving more while eating less, will create a bigger calorie deficit and naturally lead to weight loss.”

Woman skipping rope

(Image credit: Getty)

There’s a bit more to it, of course, and research, especially in the past two decades, has pointed to the fact that weight loss rests more heavily on diet, even if it’d be unwise to just focus on one or the other.

A systematic review of studies, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, suggested that subjects who used exercise alone for weight reduction experienced minimal weight loss, while the American College of Sports Medicine states that the “recommended levels of PA [physical activity] may help produce weight loss. However, up to 60 min/day may be required when relying on exercise alone for weight loss.”

The best exercises for burning calories

With this in mind, there are still exercises that are proven to burn more calories than others.

Science shows that cardio burns more calories than resistance training, with a 2012 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research finding that running on a treadmill burns 25-39% more calories than doing kettlebell exercises at the same level of exertion. 

Jumping rope is also a great exercise for weight loss burning 462 calories for half an hour of work (based on a person weighing 170lbs) according to estimates from The American Council on Exercise, while a hard stint on one of the best rowing machines for the same amount of time will burn an estimated 404 calories.

Woman lifting barbell in gym

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But don’t throw the heavy weights out just yet. “A regular workout routine featuring weightlifting and resistance training is one of the key groups of exercises to burn the most calories,” says Hughes.

“It’s a common misconception that strength training should be purely reserved for those looking to bulk build muscle, but it’s also very effective for burning calories. Muscles are a metabolically active, fat-burning tissue. 

“Simply put, this means muscles require the use of calories, even when at rest. This same tissue also plays a role in increasing the number of fat-burning enzymes in your body. Therefore, the more muscle you have, the more calories you’ll naturally burn.”

What is FatMax training and can it help you lose weight?

FatMax training is a concept that has risen in popularity in recent years, and offers an even deeper dive for those looking to find their best exercise for weight loss.

Put simply, FatMax is the amount of fat an athlete can 'burn' per hour. More specifically, FatMax is the intensity of exercise at which an individual’s fat oxidation — measured in grams per minute — is at its highest. 

At low intensities, you will not burn a lot of fat, since you don’t burn that much energy at all. When intensity increases, fat oxidation increases as well, but only up to a certain point — the so-called FatMax. This peak also tends to be far less than you going all-out at 100 percent.

Everyone’s FatMax is highly individual, with a lab test currently the best way to find out your specific ‘FatMax’. 

Athlete being tested in laboratory

(Image credit: Getty)

“If you know your FatMax zone, this means you'll be able to train your fat oxidation and boost your endurance,” says Hughes. “This is ideal for sports such as running and cycling, especially when trying to lose weight.

“Increasing your endurance both in terms of cardiovascular and muscular endurance is important for losing weight as you will be able to train longer, meaning you'll use more energy over a longer period of time and burn more calories.”

General tips when exercising for weight loss

So as we’ve seen there’s no clearly defined answer to the best exercise for weight loss. The better route is to focus more on healthy lifestyle interventions that will help aid general weight loss, while also benefiting your health in a number of other, positive ways.

“Combining exercise with a healthy diet is the ideal way to lose weight,” Hughes explains, “rather than depending on calorie restriction alone. However, when engaging in intense exercise, you should ensure you're eating enough calories to keep your energy levels up. 

“You should also focus on the intensity of the exercise you're doing, rather than the number of calories you're burning. Also, set a consistent time to work out as you're more likely to stick to this if you.

“Finally, by focusing on exercises you enjoy, you'll be less concerned with how many calories you're actually burning during the activity.”

This article is not meant to offer medical advice and readers should consult their doctor or healthcare professional before adopting any diet or treatment. 

Richard Jones

A former commissioning editor at men’s lifestyle site FashionBeans, and lifestyle writer at The Telegraph, Richard takes pride in his ability to craft engaging reads on pretty much any topic imaginable. He is currently editor of inForm, the in-house magazine of supplements brand Form Nutrition, and specialises in easy-to-follow guides within the health and fitness space. Along with these roles, Richard also has bylines with The Evening Standard and The Independent.