There are many health benefits to exercising. Reduced inflammation, improved coordination and balance, and reduced risks of serious diseases are just some of the reasons we now consider exercise the “greatest pill ever.” It is perhaps the least used but most effective and most thoroughly studied therapy we have against chronic disease and ailments of age.
Yet, the reason we see so many individuals exercising today is often to pursue weight loss goals. One important concept that must be understood is the fact that one cannot exercise one’s way to weight loss. The idea that exercise alone can lead to weight loss or long-term weight regulation is a fallacy.
The term “weight loss” is often used synonymously – albeit erroneously – with fat loss. It is typically fat loss that people are striving to attain, not weight loss. While basal metabolic rate is indeed impacted by exercise and therefore contributes to fat loss, a reduction of body fat is primarily attained through conscious control of caloric intake. This is why the phrase “abs are made in the kitchen” is so often spoken in the world of nutrition and fitness.
The good news is that exercise can accelerate body fat loss when combined with a healthy diet. Certain types of exercise, in particular, have a greater ability to drive weight loss than others. Here, we examine the effects of exercise on weight loss to help you understand how fitness contributes to a healthy lifestyle.
Sedentary lifestyles are more common nowadays than they ever were before. Contemporary conveniences remove a large portion of physical work from daily life, which is why we must now reincorporate activities such as resistance training and endurance exercises into our routines. Humans are hardwired to burn energy, use muscle, and move frequently, and the better we are able to do this, the better condition our bodies will be in as we age.
Researchers have argued that declining physical activity in both occupational and home settings have played a role in weight gain over recent decades. There is also statistical evidence linking increased weight gain to lower activity levels.  To combat weight gain, individuals must achieve a caloric deficit, which can be pursued through nutrition and exercise together.
As with diet, the critical factor for sustainable weight loss with exercise is compliance. Because each person is unique, everyone should have an individual need analysis performed to develop an effective training program. This starts with learning how to train effectively based on starting fitness levels. Once exercise techniques are consistent and being performed correctly, individuals can then add volume and intensity to accomplish personal goals.
Every person is different, from muscle fiber types to metabolic tendencies and capacities, and even respond to training. Thus, the most important factor in any exercise regimen is creating a personalized approach. If someone enjoys activities such as yoga, for instance, this can serve as a good starting point for developing an individualized routine.
Every mobile person with a BMI under 30 can become an athlete. Individuals can benefit most from pursuing a sport they enjoy, as it presents the greatest likelihood of long-term compliance. The sport can either be a sport the participant played in the past or an entirely new one with which they have developed an interest. By choosing an activity they are fond of, participants will understand that training has more context than weight loss alone. Goals such as becoming stronger, completing new milestones such as races or events, and refining or developing skills can be integrated into any fitness program to support long-term success.
The answer for the best weight loss exercise varies widely. It depends on a few critical factors, including caloric intake and the type of activity being performed. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity in overweight or obese individuals to support weight loss. To simply maintain and prevent weight gain, it is shown that most individuals need between 150 and 250 minutes of moderate activity each week. For long-term weight loss, 200 to 300 minutes of exercise are recommended. 
It is important to note, however, that program goals should be made based on the individual’s specific needs as well as the fitness levels and the type of exercise being performed. For instance, high-intensity interval training (“HIIT”) is often performed for substantially less time but shows significant cardiovascular benefits. It can be performed for as little as 14 minutes three to four times per week, but because it is more intense than longer periods of training, it delivers similar cardiovascular improvements.
Most individuals who are first embarking on a personal fitness journey can benefit from beginning with moderate-intensity exercises, then gradually increasing training frequency and intensity. Simple aerobic exercises can be performed first, with resistance training being introduced as the athlete becomes more advanced.
As we have noted, no one can out-exercise a poor diet. Thus, using exercise to pursue weight loss goals must also factor in nutrition. There are certain approaches that prove to be more effective than others.
Increasing protein intake, for example, is shown to have beneficial results in most subjects seeking sustained weight loss. Combining this eating plan with a varied exercise regimen incorporating activities such as resistance training, high-intensity interval training, stretching, and endurance exercises will have the greatest impact on weight loss, as well as reducing risks of metabolic syndrome.
The “5210” rule is also useful: each day, individuals should aim for 5 servings of vegetables, 2 hours of bluescreen entertainment (at maximum) – television, computer, or phone entertainment, 1 hour of exercise, and 0 simple sugars, such as those found in processed foods and beverages. Additionally, reducing the intake of processed foods and carbohydrates will have even greater results, but as with all endeavors related to diet and exercise, long-term compliance is the necessary component for effectiveness.
Like nutrition, individuals who wish to support weight management through exercise must rethink their approach. Fitness should not be viewed as punishment for a bad diet: not only is this mentality ineffective, but it also causes us to form a negative relationship with exercise. Instead, physical activity should be enjoyed and embraced. While it certainly is an agent in promoting fat loss, caloric restriction is also required for losing weight. What exercise can do is make a positive impact across many markers of health over the long term and help support a more comprehensive approach to complete wellness.
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Textbook of Age Management Medicine Authors:
Jeffrey Park Leake, M.D., CPT
Dr. Jeffrey Park Leake is a Partner and Director of Education at Cenegenics Elite Health specializing in age management and wellness. Having trained hundreds of physicians worldwide, Dr. Leake is also the Director of Education for the Clinical Strategies for Healthy Aging course at AMM Educational Foundation.
Todd David Greenberg, M.D., CSCS
Dr. Todd Greenberg is a practicing physician with a broad range of expertise, including wellness, exercise, sports injuries, and MRI of sports injuries. He is a Radiology Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Washington.