People frequently ask me what the best type of exercise is to achieve successful weight loss. In the book The Weight Loss Counter Revolution (available for purchase by clicking here) I have an entire section dedicated to an explanation of the science behind exercise and the best approach. Shameless self-promotion aside, I figured I’d give you a brief summary. The bottom line is that it is clear from the medical literature that a successful and permanent commitment to both exercise and calorie control are necessary for sustained weight loss. This may not be news to most, the problem is that people often don’t know where to begin.
The reality is that the type of exercise you do is less important than how you do it. The key to success is not in type but in intensity. You have to be doing real exercise in order to be successful. I can’t tell you how often I see people decked out in their track suits strolling on the treadmill while chatting with their girlfriends or talking on their cellphones, gently dabbing away the scant droplets of sweat dotting their foreheads. They then feel that they can splurge on their eating because, after all, they worked out. They then wonder why they don’t lose weight. Everybody knows you have to exercise and watch what you eat to lose weight but so many people fail because they think they are exercising when, in fact, they are doing nothing of the sort. This is not to say that a brisk walk is a bad thing. It is certainly better than sitting on the couch and eating potato chips, it’s just not sufficient to lose weight. What you need to be doing is “real” exercise. But how we define “real” will determine how successful we are. I think it’s good to use the following test to determine if the exertion you are doing is deserving of the title “exercise”:
- If you are doing endurance (aka cardio-respiratory) training: You should be exerting yourself to the point where you are breathing to hard to speak in complete sentences. If you are walking/running/biking/ellipticaling and you can carry on a complete conversation, turn up the intensity.
- If you are doing strength training (aka lifting weights): You should be unable to complete your last repetition because of muscle fatigue. This can be done with heavy weights and fewer repetitions or with lighter weights and more repetitions.
On the last point, there was an interesting video from the New York Times website that documented some Canadian research that showed that lifting lighter weights with more reps is just as effective as lifting maximal weight (NY Times Video). This is hugely important for the newbie weight lifter. If you’re afraid of hitting the weights or if you have problems with your joints, lifting with lighter weights but more reps is the way to go. The key is you have to go to fatigue, no matter how many reps it takes. Less weight means less joint strain. As you improve, you’ll need to slowly increase your number of weights or the amount of weight you lift.
The video also gives me the opportunity to advocate the most important exercise for your overall health – the squat. That’s right, sit down then stand up. Keep doing that until you can’t stand up any more. Do it regularly. You’ll lose weight and live longer.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t really matter what kind of exercise you do as long as it is of sufficient intensity. With that said, you could do much worse than some old fashioned squats, push ups, sit ups, or pull ups. The really old school Jack Lalanne stuff is the best. Your workout for tonight I’m sure Jack would love it):
Do as many push ups as you can do in 2 minutes, then do as many sit ups as you can do in 2 minutes, then as many squats as you can do it 2 minutes. Repeat the entire thing. Write down your totals and repeat the exercise three times a week until you’ve doubled your numbers. Good Luck!!