Which exercise is best for losing, maintaining or gaining weight?

Emma White - Certified Personal Trainer | 01 Jul, 2024

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When it comes to weight management, there are generally three goals people may be working towards – maintaining a healthy weight, losing weight, or gaining weight.

Exercise is something everyone should try and fit into their routine regardless of their weight goal. It does so much more than burn calories – it improves our cardiovascular health, bone health, quality of life, mood, sleep quality and mental wellbeing to name just a few benefits. But should the type of exercise we do change based on our personal weight goals? Let's discuss!

Lose weight

Lose weight

If your goal is to lose weight, exercise is a great way to burn extra calories and help you create the required calorie deficit. So the best activities to choose are those with maximum calorie burning potential!

Cardio – This is the go-to for most people seeking to use exercise for weight loss – it includes running, spin classes, cycling, swimming, using a cross trainer, rowing and brisk walking. Each of these activities will burn a decent number of calories (the more you weigh, the more you will burn). The 'best' one to do is the one you enjoy the most and will therefore do regularly. Start at an intensity that suits your fitness level – the great thing about cardio activity is that you can make progress quite quickly, and it's really motivating when you can feel your fitness level improving!

Walking is excellent for beginners as it's low impact and lower intensity than, say, running – and because it's less intense you can usually keep going for longer, which makes it a good calorie burner. Running is good for burning calories in a shorter space of time and cycling is a great calorie burner too, and better for those needing an activity that's low impact. Read more about the different forms of cardio in our blog here.

In terms of calories burned, here are the estimated figures for a 10st female completing one hour of the following activities at moderate intensity:

  • Walking – 158 calories
  • Running – 463 calories
  • Cycling – 444 calories
  • Swimming – 463 calories
  • Cross-trainer – 393 calories
  • Rowing – 381 calories

As you can see, most forms of cardio activity burn a similar number of calories with the exception of walking which is a much lower-intensity activity. So it really comes down to personal preference when choosing cardio exercise.

Strength training – this type of exercise has been overlooked in the past, especially by women concerned that lifting heavy weights will result in big muscles. Strength training (or 'resistance' training) is now extremely popular, as people have become aware and have a better understanding of the significant benefits it provides. While lifting weights doesn’t burn as many calories in an hour as a run would, the benefits last far beyond the training session itself.

Regular strength training builds lean muscle mass, which helps to boost our metabolic rate – so ultimately, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories your body burns each day. This means that in the longer term, strength training is great for boosting weight loss. Lifting weights can also lead to an 'after burn' effect, where metabolic rate is increased a little in the hours post exercise. So while you may burn around 200 calories whilst lifting weights, you could go on to burn an extra 100 calories throughout the day during recovery.

High intensity interval training or 'HIIT' – a buzzword at the moment, HIIT has become very popular in recent years. It consists of doing short bouts of intense exercise, followed by brief rest periods. Typical HIIT workouts are around 20-30 minutes long (as they are very intense and longer durations would be a big challenge). The great thing about HIIT is that you can achieve a lot in a short space of time – great for anyone short on time!

Another benefit of HIIT is the after-burn effect – which can be even greater than that of strength training. This means your metabolic rate remains much higher in the hours following a HIIT workout, making it an all-round fantastic calorie burner.

In conclusion, if your goal is weight loss, a combination of steady-state cardio, strength training and a HIIT session would be the most effective way to burn calories, while also leading to various fitness gains. It's also better to mix up our exercise to prevent boredom, so having a variety of styles in your program is a great idea.

Maintain weight

Maintain weight

If your goal is to stay around your current weight, regular exercise will be important for boosting general health, while also helping you to maintain an energy balance for weight maintenance.

Exercise guidelines in the UK are for us to complete at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week (moderate intensity means you should feel a little breathless, your heart rate should be elevated, and you can hold a conversation but not sing a song). The recommmendation is to spread the 150 minutes of exercise across at 4/5 days at least – so aiming for 30 minutes on 5 days of the week is great goal. It's also recommended to include at least 2 strength training sessions per week for general good health.

Completing some moderate-intensity cardio activities, such as walking, swimming or jogging for 30 minutes two to three times a week, along with two 30-minute strength-based sessions such as body weight exercises or lifting weights, would help you hit the general health guidelines. However if you have a specific fitness goal such as increasing your strength or improving cardiovascular fitness, then your exercise routine will need to be adjusted to reflect this, with more focus on weight training or higher-intensity cardio workouts respectively.

When it comes to weight maintenance, it's all about keeping your calorie expenditure equal to your calorie intake – so be mindful that the more exercise you do, the more calories you'll need to eat to avoid losing weight when you don't intend to.

Just a note! Any type of exercise that helps you move more and gets your blood pumping is great for overall health, but the most important thing is to choose an activity you enjoy doing. If you find something you really love, you are more likely to keep it up, and the key is to successful weight maintenance is to be active consistently – how you do this is up to you!

Gain weight

Gain weight

In order to gain weight, you need to be in a calorie surplus, so doing hours and hours of cardio could be counterproductive. That said, some cardio is important for general good health. It's good to include walking or cycling (if you enjoy it) – following the guidance on physical activity for general health (150 minutes per week) is appropriate for everyone – even if you're trying to gain weight.

In addition to this, if you're looking to increase the number on the scales, your main exercise of focus should be strength training. Many people with a goal to gain weight want to build muscle mass first and foremost – so lifting weights is the answer. It is important to follow an appropriate training program that targets all the major muscle groups, and requires you to lift heavy enough weights to achieve hypertrophy (muscle growth).

If you enjoy running or HIIT for example, it's still fine to continue these forms of exercise to help boost fitness levels, but you will need to increase your calorie intake to compensate for the extra calories burned to avoid losing weight.

Summary

Ultimately, all exercise is good, as it's all about moving your body more. Whether your goal is to lose, gain or maintain, the main thing is to pick a form of exercise you enjoy doing – as this is the one you are likely to stick with! That said, prioritising certain types of activity can be helpful if you have a specific goal in mind, so bear this in mind when setting our your training goals.

Emma White (Certified Personal Trainer) has always loved fitness. She's passionate about the many benefits of regular exercise, particularly the positive impact on mental health and overall quality of life, as well as how it provides the key to successful weight management.

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