When it comes to losing weight, the classic formula has long been to “eat less and exercise more.” Yet, people often overestimate how many calories they have burned through exercise while underestimating how many calories they are consuming in a given meal. On top of that, research has shown that vigorous exercise tends to increase our appetites, leading us to consume more calories than we otherwise would. Thus, if your only goal is shedding pounds, your first priority should always be a healthy diet–specifically, a whole food, plant-based diet that is packed with nutrients but lower in calories. (Scientists now know that getting enough sleep plays an essential role as well.)
Yet, exercise is still important for a number of reasons. First, although you can lose weight without exercising, doing so means that you’ll also lose muscle and bone density, which isn’t wise. Second, physical activity will help you keep the weight off once you’ve lost it. Regular exercise increases your metabolism, in part because muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, even when you’re at rest. On top of that, exercise improves your mood and cognitive function, helps you sleep better, boosts your immune system, and so much more.
An Exercise Plan for Weight Loss
Now that we understand the vital importance of getting regular exercise, let’s talk about how to develop a routine that works best for you. In designing exercise programs for clients, trainers consider three main elements: Cardiovascular activity, strength training, and flexibility.
While cardiovascular activity will burn calories, strength training will help build muscle, which can increase fat burning when you’re at rest. And although flexibility doesn’t have a direct impact on weight, it can help you avoid injury, which can derail your whole training regimen. It’ll also help you perform strength and cardio better, which could translate into more effective workouts. The upshot? Each of these three components complements the other, and if you want a complete fitness program, you’ve got to include them all.
Exercise improves your mood and cognitive function, helps you sleep better, boosts your immune system, and so much more.
Of course, you need more details than that, which is where the FITT principle comes into play. FITT stands for frequency, intensity, time, and type of exercise, and trainers use this principle to create workouts that meet specific goals, weight loss in this case. Here’s what a weight loss-oriented workout program using the FITT principle might look like:
Frequency: Government guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week for optimal health. That amounts to 30 minutes per day, five days a week at a minimum. While that’s a start, you may ultimately need to bump it up to about six weekly workouts for weight loss.
Intensity: While most of your workouts should be at a moderate intensity, aim to challenge your body by doing higher intensity exercise one or two days a week on non-consecutive days. Try interval training where you alternate between hard and easy work, perhaps in a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio—i.e. one minute hard followed by one minute easy or one minute hard followed by two minutes easy. Monitor intensity by rating your exertion on a scale of one to ten, with one being very light and ten extremely hard. For moderate-intensity workouts, shoot for five to seven. For high-intensity, you’ll want to be at eight or nine.
Time: As intensity goes up, time goes down. So for low to moderate intensity workouts, plan to exercise for 30 to 60 minutes. Meanwhile, veer toward shorter workouts, even just 20 minutes for high-intensity work. Of course, if you’re new to exercise, start with short bouts—even 10 minutes—and gradually build.
Type: This depends on personal preference—choose exercises that you enjoy—and the equipment at your disposal. Some suggestions: running, brisk walking, cycling, swimming, water aerobics, or Zumba or other dance classes. Note that when we repeatedly engage in any specific type of exercise, our bodies tend to become more efficient at performing that exercise, which may lead to a plateau in your performance and weight loss results. Mixing up your workouts will help you avoid this pitfall. Try different activities—walking one day, tennis the next. You might also try different ways of doing your favorite activity. For example, if you typically swim using a freestyle stroke, try switching to the breast stroke. Aside from minimizing plateaus, a mix of activities will help to prevent injuries that might occur by repetitive strain on the same joints and muscles. It will also help to keep you from getting bored, which might discourage you from sticking with your program.
Frequency: Aim to do strength training two to three days a week on non-consecutive days.
Intensity: When training with weights, shoot for at least one set of 8 to 12 repetitions. If you can do more than 12 repetitions, increase the weight accordingly. As you get stronger, you can add additional sets as well. If you are doing body weight exercises such as unweighted squats, push-ups, or pull-ups, push yourself to do as many as you can while maintaining good form. You should be using enough weight that by the time you reach that last repetition, your muscles should feel fatigued.
Time: This depends on how you structure your strength training. Some people like to hit every major muscle group in each workout—i.e. upper body, core, and lower body. Others prefer to focus on upper body one day, lower body the next. A full body workout will obviously take longer.
Type: There are a wide variety of strength training tools, including dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, stability balls, medicine balls, and resistance machines. Bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, dips, and crunches, are another good option and have the added benefit that you can do them almost anywhere.
Stretching and Flexibility
Frequency: Stretching exercises should be done a minimum of four days per week to increase flexibility, but a good rule of thumb is to stretch at the end of every workout. Stretching before a workout may also be a good idea, depending on the type of activity, but see below for more details.
Intensity: Stretching can be broken down into two basic modes: static stretching and dynamic stretching. In static stretching, a stretch is held for 30-60 seconds. In dynamic stretching, a joint is taken through its full range of motion several times without holding any one position. The goal in this case is to gently increase that range through each repetition. Dynamic stretching is good to warm up muscles and joints and prepare them for activities where their range of motion may be pushed to the limit–e.g. competitive sports where movements may be various and unpredictable. Static stretching is best for increasing flexibility, but when done before exercise, it can actually inhibit neuromuscular activation–i.e. prevent your muscles from contracting at full power. Thus, it should be done after your workouts.
Time: For pre-workout dynamic stretching, take as much time as you need to put each joint that will play a role in your activity through at least six to eight flowing repetitions–or however repetitions are needed to alleviate any stiffness and warm up the joint. For post-workout static stretching, take as much time as needed to stretch each major muscle group involved in your activity for 30-60 seconds.
Type: As discussed above, both dynamic and static stretching are important. Some forms of exercise—e.g. pilates and yoga—incorporate these kinds of stretching into their routines. Yoga can be a great activity for your “off” days as a way to facilitate recovery from strength and cardio workouts.
Just as you can’t outrun a bad diet, you also can’t out-exercise a sedentary day. While you need to do structured exercise as described above, you can wipe out any benefits you gain from these workouts if you’re sitting all day. The solution? Take five minutes every 30 to 60 minutes and move, whether that means taking a quick stroll, a quick round of jumping jacks or other calisthenics, or even some stretching at your desk.
Exercise, of course, is about so much more than weight loss or management. While it certainly plays a role, hopefully you’ll shift your focus to the enjoyment you get from moving. Movement is life after all, and that life can be a longer, healthier one, thanks to the combination of plant-based eating and daily activity.