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The benefits of exercise for weight loss

Exercise is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle. It keeps your heart healthy, keeps your brain active and is the secret to a long life. Inactivity is one of the leading causes of death across the globe, causing 1 in 6 deaths Trusted source UK Government Services and Information Government Source Go to source in the UK alone.

Exercise is also an essential part of weight loss. There are many ways you can incorporate more activity into your life. Keep reading to find out more.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana Written by Dr. Kyle Collins Last reviewed 07-05-2024

What is exercise?

Exercise is when you have to move your body more than usual. It can be something easy, like walking, or something hard, like lifting weights. But any type of exercise helps your body and makes you healthier.

What are the main types of exercise?

There is a range of exercises that all have different goals. Below are four of the most important and effective types of exercise for weight loss:

  • Aerobic exercise - Endurance-type exercises that increase heart and breathing rates (e.g. jogging)
  • Strength training - Builds muscle mass (e.g. lifting weights or banded exercises)
  • Stretching - Maintains flexibility and keeps muscles healthy
  • Balance exercises - Helps keep you up on your feet and prevent falls (e.g. yoga)

In general, you should aim to do a bit of all of them to cover all your fitness goals.

Why is exercise important?

Exercise has almost an endless amount of benefits. One of the biggest benefits is weight loss.

When you exercise, your body is using extra energy (calories). When this happens, your body starts to burn fat for fuel, resulting in fat loss. The more exercise you do, the more efficient your body becomes at burning fat.

As well as weight loss, exercise can improve many aspects of your health.

Improves heart health

Heart disease is one of the biggest killers in the UK. The best way to reduce the risk is to do more physical activity.

According to the British Heart Foundation, regular physical activity can reduce your risk of developing a heart or cardiovascular disease by 35%.

Regular exercise can prevent heart disease by as much as 35%.

Exercise trains your heart as much as it trains your other muscles.

When you do physical activity, your heart rate goes up. This makes your heart muscle stronger so it can pump more blood throughout your body. Physical activity also helps with blood flow and prevents conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Promotes muscle growth

Muscle growth is also a great benefit of exercise. People may be hesitant to gain a bit of muscle for aesthetic reasons, but building strength is essential for many daily functions.

Man holding shoulder with muscle diagram.

When you lift weights or do resistance training, it damages your muscles. This damage forces your muscles to repair themselves. This increases the muscle fibres, increasing muscle strength and size. This is a phenomenon known as hypertrophy.

Research Trusted source Human Kinetics Journals Peer-reviewed Journals Sports and Exercise Science Go to source has shown that strong muscles are good for bone and joint health, which reduces your risk of injury and improves injury recovery time.

Improves brain health

Few people realise the benefits exercise has for your brain. Improved blood flow in the body means better blood flow to the brain. In the short term, it can improve your memory, cognition and problem-solving abilities.

A healthy brain is also good in the long term. One study Trusted source ScienceDirect Peer-reviewed Journals Multidisciplinary Research Go to source found that inactive people are twice as likely to experience cognitive decline as they age. Therefore, exercise can lower the risk of neurodegenerative disorders like dementia.

Paper jigsaw puzzle head.

Exercise is also beneficial for your mental health. Exercising promotes the release of mood-boosting hormones such as endorphins. These hormones block pain and create a pleasurable feeling.

Adding exercise to your routine is often recommended for those struggling with mental health disorders. A study Trusted source Wiley Online Library Peer-reviewed Journals Multidisciplinary Research Go to source investigated the effect of exercise on patients with clinical depression. They found that after 9 weeks of doing three 45-minute sessions a week, their symptoms significantly improved.

Reduces cancer risk

Lack of physical activity can increase the risk of cancer.

Regular exercise can reduce the risk of over 26 cancers.

Cancer is closely related to obesity, inflammation and hormone levels, risk factors that are often caused by inactivity. Regular exercise can reduce the risk of over 26 cancers Trusted source PubMed Government Source Database of Biomedical Research Go to source , including:

  • bladder cancer
  • breast cancer
  • colon cancer
  • endometrial cancer
  • stomach cancer
  • kidney cancer

Unfortunately, you cannot completely prevent cancer. However, you can reduce any avoidable risk.

What are the best exercises for weight loss?

With the wealth of exercise plans available, finding the best plan for you feel like an almost impossible task. However, any movement is good. Even just taking the stairs instead of a lift or doing some household chores can help get your sweat on.

To help, we summarise some of the best exercises for weight loss that are easy for beginners.

1. Cardio

A fundamental component of all weight loss exercise regimes is cardio. Cardio, short for cardiovascular fitness, is an umbrella term for any exercise that raises your heart rate. It is the exercise that tends to burn the most calories.

Close up of man jogging on the treadmill.

The great thing about cardio is that it is suitable for any fitness level. You also do not need much, if any, equipment. Some cardio exercises that are easy to do with minimal equipment include:

  • long and brisk walks and other walking exercises
  • jogging or running
  • interval training (e.g. HIIT or Tabata)
  • sprints
  • cycling
  • skipping
  • standing cardio (e.g. star jumps, burpees or jump squats)
  • stair climbing

You can do these in your home, at your local park or join a class. There are also plenty of gym equipment options for cardio lovers. The gym can seem daunting for beginners. Thankfully, cardio machines are some of the easier ones to use.

Cardio is easy to incorporate into your routine. For instance, a daily walk to work or the shops can improve your fitness. It is an easy method to get moving and get your heart rate up, especially for beginners.

2. Strength training

Strength training is another important part of your fitness regime. Despite what you may think, it’s not always about heavy lifting. It’s more about strengthening your muscles so they can support you in your day-to-day life.

Close up of young woman lifting kettlebell.

When strength training, you should aim to train the muscles across your body including your arms, shoulders, back, abs and legs.

You don’t necessarily need to use weights. Your body weight is also a great way to train your muscles, like by doing planks or push-ups.

3. Pilates

A low-intensity type of exercise is known as pilates. Pilates is a type of exercise that focuses on the mind-body connection but is also a great weight loss exercise.

Women in a pilates class.

The exercises aim to improve balance, flexibility and strength. There are different types of Pilates. There is mat pilates which mainly focuses on body weight exercise. Or, you can go to a Pilates studio which uses equipment that challenges your muscles.

Pilates targets muscles across your body and is adaptable for most fitness levels. It can also be quite calming as classes tend to be slower. For that reason, it’s a great exercise plan to get into fitness and kick-start your weight loss.

4. Yoga

Yoga is often confused with pilates as they appear similar. However, yoga is more rooted in relaxation and meditation. Many dismiss yoga as being slow or boring, but it can be incredibly challenging.

Men and women sitting cross-legged on the floor in a yoga class.

There are many styles of yoga. At its core, the exercise consists of a series of specific postures connected through flowing sequences. These sequences are often coordinated with breathing exercises in time with each pose.

Performing these poses improves posture, balance and flexibility. It can also improve muscle strength as it challenges the body by staying still in difficult positions.

Yoga is also known for its relaxation benefits. A typical yoga session will end with a moment of relaxation and meditation.

5. Sports

Another good way to lose weight is to do a sport. Some good sports for weight loss include:

  • swimming
  • boxing
  • tennis
  • ball sports (e.g. rugby or football)
  • skateboarding
  • parkour
  • martial arts

Unlike the other exercises on this list, sport is competitive, making exercise fun and motivating. You may not even notice the benefits of sport as you’re enjoying it too much.

How often should you work out?

According to the NHS physical activity guidelines Trusted source NHS Government Source Go to source , you should aim to do at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. If you split that across 5 days a week, the minimum recommendation is 15 - 30 minutes of exercise a day.

Adults should aim to do 15-30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week.

Vigorous-intensity exercises may include intense cardio, full-body workouts or heaving lifting. Moderate-intensity activity is more like brisk walking or pushing a lawn mower.

Does diet matter more than exercise?

Exercise is important for weight loss and being healthy overall. However, you still have to eat a healthy diet to achieve your goals. You would have to do a lot more exercise to match the number of calories you can simply cut from your daily intake. It would take much longer and require more physical effort without cutting calories.

One study Trusted source NRC Research Press Peer-reviewed Journals Scientific Journal Publisher Go to source investigated the effects of exercise on weight loss. Over 4 - 8 weeks, women aged 18 to 32 attended circuit-training classes three times a week without making changes to their diet.

They found that neither the obese nor lean women lost any weight. However, they saw that the lean women gained muscle mass. They also observed changes in appetite hormones that meant it was difficult for the women to lose weight.

That doesn’t mean increasing your activity levels isn’t beneficial. It means if you’re looking to lose weight, you will need to be in a calorie deficit as well as exercising.

Are there any disadvantages of exercise?

There are some risks to exercise.

  • It can result in injury - If you do exercises with improper form or overdo it.
  • It can affect your appetite - Burning exercise can make you feel hungry, making it more difficult to stick to your diet.
  • It can result in body image issues - The more you exercise, the more you expect your body to look a certain way. It can damage your self-esteem.
  • It can cost money - Buying a gym membership or buying equipment is difficult for some.

Most of these are preventable. For instance, cycling to work instead of driving is a simple way to incorporate exercise into your daily life without taking too much time out of your day. There are also plenty of free exercise resources online for exercises. You don’t have to pay for a personal trainer or a gym membership. You can do plenty of workouts at home as well.

How do I start exercising?

So with all the benefits of exercise, how do you get started? We’ve simplified what you need to consider into four easy steps.

1. Consider your goals

The first step to building your exercise program is deciding what you want to achieve. Are you looking to lose weight, build muscle or improve your flexibility? These goals will shape the kind of workouts you need to do to achieve your goals.

2. Assess your current fitness levels

Once you have decided what you would like to achieve, you will need to consider your fitness levels. Are you a complete beginner or have you done a bit of exercise?

You don’t want to jump into difficult or strenuous workouts if you’re a beginner. This is because it can put you at a greater risk of injury or even dishearten you when the exercises are too difficult.

3. Pick your exercises

Now you have figured out your goals and your fitness levels, it’s time to pick the exercises that fit your plan. Start by doing some research and then come up with a schedule you can stick to. For example, a very common split for strength training is to focus on specific muscle groups in each session.

Below is an example of a beginner’s strength workout split that includes all major muscle groups.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday / Sunday
Upper body (Back & biceps) Lower body (Legs & glutes) Rest day Upper body (Triceps, chest & shoulders) Abs Rest day

This is just an example, you can modify it to fit your needs.

4. Get started

Then, you just need to make the final and biggest step - get started. Make sure you have the right equipment, either for home workouts or by joining the gym. If you’re nervous, why not bring a friend? Take it slow and do as much as you can. Try not to be defeated. Progress takes time.

Main takeaways

  • Exercise has many health benefits, including weight loss.
  • You should aim to do 140 - 75 minutes of physical activity a week.
  • There are many types of exercises, so there’s likely an activity that you like.
  • You should also eat in a calorie deficit to achieve weight loss results.

Further reading

Find your perfect exercise: tips for every fitness level

The benefits of exercise for weight loss Find your perfect exercise: tips for every fitness level

Reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana
The secret to battling weight loss plateaus

The benefits of exercise for weight loss The secret to battling weight loss plateaus

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Weight lifting for weight loss

The benefits of exercise for weight loss Weight lifting for weight loss

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Home workouts to lose weight

The benefits of exercise for weight loss Home workouts to lose weight

Reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana
The best cardio exercises to lose weight

The benefits of exercise for weight loss The best cardio exercises to lose weight

Reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana
Walking and how it can help with weight loss

The benefits of exercise for weight loss Walking and how it can help with weight loss

Reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana
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