Best Exercise For Weight Loss?

Is aerobic exercise or strength training better for weight loss or do you have to do both? I really want to lose weight, but I’m not sure about the exercise component. Is there any research that answers this question?

– July 31, 2015

I’m glad to hear that you’re factoring exercise into your weight loss plan. Daily physical activity is essential, not only to help speed your loss but for your overall health going forward. And you’re in luck. A newly published (2015) study from Spain sheds light on the previously unanswered question of which kind of exercise is most effective.

Researchers at the Technical University of Madrid and La Paz University Hospital recruited 48 obese men and 48 obese women ages 18 to 50 for a 22-week supervised diet and exercise program. The participants followed a reduced-calorie diet, individually calibrated to give each of them 30 percent fewer calories than he or she burned daily.

The participants were all randomly assigned to one of three different exercise-training programs, or instructed to follow the recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) for weekly physical activity. Participants in one of the groups could choose an endurance activity such as running, working out on an elliptical machine or cycling. Those in another group did only strength training exercises – shoulder presses, squats, barbell rows, biceps curls and bench presses. A third group performed a combination of strength and endurance exercises. All the participants in the three groups exercised three times a week for 51 minutes at 50 percent intensity during weeks two to five of the study. During weeks six to 14, they upped their intensity to 60 percent and exercised for 50 minutes three times a week. During weeks 15 to 22, their time increased to 60 minutes while their intensity remained at 60 percent. Those following the ACSM recommendations were advised to exercise for 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week for a total of 200 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity. The researchers also urged these participants to increase their daily activity in other ways such as walking instead of driving, using stairs instead of an elevator and making other lifestyle changes to become more active.

What worked best? All of the above. The researchers reported that all the participants, no matter which of the four exercise plans they followed, lost significant amounts of weight; their body mass index (BMI) decreased, as did their waist circumferences and total body fat. They all saw significant increases in lean body mass.

The Spanish results are interesting and show that regular exercise really does enhance weight loss efforts. Fitness expert Dan Bornstein emphasizes the need for variety in your workouts. The more you vary the intensity, duration and even the type of exercise you do (walking, jogging, biking, swimming, hiking) the more physically challenging each workout will be and the more calories you will burn. Further, the more you vary the types of exercise you perform, the less likely you are to suffer from repetitive stress injuries.

If you’re not accustomed to exercise, I suggest that you start out by working with a trainer who can recommend the exercises that will benefit you the most and teach you how do to them safely.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Carmen Gómez-Candela et al, “Change in weight and body composition in obese subjects following a hypocaloric diet plus different training programs or physical activity recommendations.” Journal of Applied Physiology, 2015; 118 (8): 1006 DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00928.2014

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