Group of Women Exercising

The Best Exercise for Weight Loss

What’s the best exercise for weight loss? It’s not circuit training, not bootcamp, not HIIT, hot yoga, or anything that comes to mind when you think about exercise and losing weight. But that’s in part because the way that exercise for weight loss is sold is completely backwards.

Here’s my Youtube video on this same subject if you prefer to watch than read:

What fitness studios and bootcamp style classes tend to focus on is that their workouts burn the most calories, or the most calories per unit time, or that they keep your metabolism elevated for longer after the class is done. These types of classes definitely do burn a lot of calories, and the businesses behind these workouts will use that data to then claim that their workout is the best for losing weight. But this is not how weight loss works.

How Does a Person Lose Weight?

There is only one way a person loses body weight and that is to sustain a caloric deficit for a long period of time. That’s it. That’s the one thing.

What determines if you are in a caloric deficit is your energy balance, or the ratio of energy in, to energy out. Energy in is what you eat and drink, energy out is how much energy you expend through exercise and all the other activity you do in a day.

Various environmental and biological factors influence both sides of the equation, but the fact is that a caloric deficit or negative energy balance is essential for weight loss, period.

Since today’s article is about exercise, we’ll focus on the energy out part of the equation.

Exercise actually represents a small part of your daily energy expenditure, even if you do a hard workout. It takes a lot more energy to simply keep your body functioning. Most people aren’t aware of this, even though it’s quite well understood in research.

There are four things that combine to make up your total daily energy expenditure. This is summarized in the image below:

breakdown of total daily energy expenditure

The first and by far the largest is your basal metabolic rate, or the energy it takes to keep you alive. The act of breathing, and your organs functioning. Consciousness. These things combine to make up about 60-70% of the amount of energy you burn in a day.

Next is your non exercise activity. This is things like moving around the house, light activities like cooking, and even fidgeting. This makes up about 20% of your daily energy expenditure.

The thermic amount of food is how much of the energy you intake from food is lost as heat. Not all of the energy you eat is absorbed. Some foods, notably proteins, have a higher thermic effect than other foods. This makes up about 10% of your today daily energy expenditure.

And then that brings us to exercise, which only makes up 10% of your daily energy expenditure.

Since exercise only makes up 10% of the energy you burn, it doesn’t make sense to choose your workout based on how many calories it burns, even if your principal goal is weight loss. If one workout burns 30 or even 50 percent more than some other activity, that’s only going to have a small impact on energy balance. In terms of weight loss, it’s not worth it.

But all else equal, doesn’t it make sense to optimize all parts of the energy out equation? Why not get that extra few percent? Well, the fact is that the more intense activities that give you the better calories burned per unit time numbers have costs too.

What’s the Best Exercise for Weight Loss?

This brings us to the “best” exercise for weight loss if there even is such a thing, and that’s walking. Plain and simple walking. I know it sounds crazy but it’s true.

Let’s compare walking to some popular workout classes to see why walking is the best choice.

According to an interview with a company representative, a person exercising at Orange Theory can expect to burn 500-1000 calories per 55-60 minutes class. At F45 the numbers range from 300-1000 calories for a 45-minute class. Walking burns about 200-500 per hour depending and how fast you’re walking, and if you’re going uphill.

The workout classes are definitely superior to walking in terms of calories burned per unit time. But that actually doesn’t matter, not when we zoom out a bit a consider the whole picture.

The more intense activities are harder on your joints. Injuries and burnout are more likely. It’s harder to motivate yourself to go to an intense workout if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep or a tough day. Workout classes cost money, and you have to show up at a particular time, and maybe even commute.

And once again, we lose weight by maintaining a caloric deficit over a long period of time. With this in mind, it makes sense to sacrifice some intensity for sustainability.

Why is Walking the Best Exercise for Weight Loss?

Walking is free and you can do it anywhere. It is very simple to adjust the speed or duration of the walk to meet your present fitness level. You can work it into your day. Maybe you can walk to work. Or make phone calls while you walk. You can listen to music or podcasts. You can walk with a friend.

If you make the mindset shift to make it part of your routine, it can fit into a busy schedule quite easily.

Walking can also have a profound effect on mood, energy, and sleep quality. This is huge because real successful weight loss usually requires a few lifestyle changes beyond exercise. Feeling good and healthy makes a huge difference to being able to make choices consistent with your weight loss goal.

Workout classes can have this same effect on mood and energy, but they are often so demanding that people feel run down or burnt out.

There’s another issue with the more intense workouts. Hard activity is fuelled by carbs, usually in the form of muscle glycogen. When you’re done your workout, you need to replace these stores by eating carbs. This is completely fine, but, in the absence of some sort of nutrition plan, this often results in unplanned hunger or a craving in addition to a person’s normal eating routine. As a result, it’s common to overeat in this new meal. People who start doing intense workouts for the primary purpose of losing weight often end up gaining weight because of this.

Lower intensity activities like walking do not generally result in the same intense post workout cravings.

Wrapping Up

The takeaway is that exercise is a very small piece of the puzzle when it comes to energy balance and weight loss. And since the only way to really lose weight is to sustain a caloric deficit over a long period of time, that sustainability is more important than intensity. Nothing is more sustainable than walking. The fact that it’s easy to do frees up mental energy to put into other pieces of the energy balance equation. Things like managing stress, getting restful sleep, and eating nutritious food.

So walking is the best exercise for weight loss, based on its superior accessibility and sustainability. Remember that there are lot of different ways to make it part of your day. If you’re just starting out, walking for bouts of just 10 minutes can have a significant positive effect on your health. You can build from there as your fitness level increases.

There any many things to factor in when following a weight loss plan, but perhaps the most important is to think long-term. Prioritizing walking as the go-to activity for weight loss is highly compatible with this strategy. If you’ve done the bootcamp thing and didn’t get the results you want, try walking. If you’re patient, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.


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Comments (21)

  • I just turned 80 and have knee and back pain but want to be active. Doctors dont care at my age. What would you suggest forexercise?

    • Hi Barbara, thanks for your question. As a general rule, you want to let pain be your guide, or in other words, if it hurts, don’t do it. Try to find an activity that can be done pain free. That might be walking, or a recumbent bike, or perhaps a chair workout (there are some great ones on youtube). If you are interested in resolving your back pain, I recommend working with a skilled clinician in your area, and reading the book Back Mechanic by Dr. Stuart McGill. I hope that helps. Good luck!

  • I am in need of a hip replacement and I am trying to lose weight for the procedure. I am not able to walk… Can barely stand and have fallen several times due to my hip. It is really difficult to be active and to lose weight…as bad as I want to.
    What do you suggest for me?

    • Thank you for your question. I’m sorry to hear that you are dealing with such a tough situation. Although exercise and physical activity are very helpful for supporting healthy weight loss, it is possible to lose weight through changes to nutrition alone. Working closely with a nutrition or dietician could be a great start. Good luck with everything.

    • It’s not possible to say for certain as weight loss is governed by energy balance. If someone walked 50 miles a week but increased their foot intake accordingly, they wouldn’t lose any weight. All else equal, and hour per day of walking is a good amount to aim for as part of a healthy weight loss plan that also includes attention to healthy nutrition and other aspects of healthy living. Thanks for your questions!

  • I enjoyed your video. Due to a motorcycle accident, I have no ankle on the right leg and at the ankle area my leg is shorter by two inches. Due to that injury, my walks are very limited but my outdoor bicycling is not. I installed a 2” wooden block on the right pedal so i cam cycle for ever :-).
    My I assume that my outdoor cycling is a good substitute for walking. Or am I missing something by not walking?

    • That’s a great question. Sorry to hear about your injury, but it sounds like you’ve taken big steps to overcome it! You are absolutely correct that your cycling is a great substitute for walking. It’s common to need to modify our activities based on injury history, and while that might mean avoiding an activity that is otherwise helpful, it can still be the right choice. Joint health always needs to be considered.

  • Thank you for this intelligent and well balanced article. It makes alot of sense. What are your thoughts about Pilates being your exercise of choice combined with walking 3 times a week at pace? How long would you need to do this to get toned?

    • Thanks for your comment Sureena. The concept of “tone” is a funny one. I know what you mean when you say it, but there’s no real definition for it, at least as it relates to body composition and appearance. “Toned” usually refers to having less body fat, and more visible or defined muscles, but not more bulk. If this is the goal, the fat loss piece is best achieved by maintaining a negative energy balance which is most dependent on nutrition. For more visible, defined muscles, but not more bulk, the best approach is fairly heavy strength training. Walking will play an important role by increasing energy expenditure and maintaining good physical health. Pilates is great for increasing core strength, and a some people find it helps alleviate back pain. It’s unlikely that it would have a significant impact on physique or appearance. Hope that helps!

  • Brilliant article! The number one thing I have learnt from 15 years of being I n this game is to realise the power of food and the relative ineffectiveness of exercise in the overall picture. A calorie is way more powerful than movement. Also there is no such thing as food that Burns fat ! People assume there is such a thing as negative calories where In you eat something to burn fat. Thier entire understanding of fat loss and thermodynamics is completely backwards unfortunately. A mass re education is required at the fundamental level.

    • You’re right. There’s been a lot of pseudoscience, misinformation, and marketing over the last several decades that have led to us where we are now, and it’s continuing! I agree with you that exercise is rather ineffective as a weight loss strategy, but I do think it’s an essential component of healthy weight loss because exercise is essential for health. The calories burned in the workout don’t matter very much, but healthy habits tend to lead to more healthy habits. There are other connections too. For example, exercise can do a lot to help promote good mental health and manage stress. A person who is not stressed out has one less potential reason for overeating. That sort of thing. But I do agree with you that we seriously overemphasize the importance of exercise in the energy balance equation. Thanks for your comment!

  • I was just released from the hospital from COVID and pneumonia. I’m so glad to be alive! I have had bilateral knee replacements and several other surgeries. If I walk with a walker for 10 minutes and then work up, will that help?

    • You said it perfectly. Regardless of the circumstances (including those far less challenging than yours – glad you are OK!) we all need to start with what we can do now and increase gradually. That is always, always, the best approach. If we do an activity consistently, we do typically increase our ability to do that activity. As it relates to energy balance and weight loss, more is better, but this has to be reconciled with various constraints like if there are health risks or joint pain or anything else. I encourage you to consult with your medical team. Starting small and building gradually is always a good approach.

  • Good article, but I have something to add. If BMR is far and away where most calories are burned, then increasing one’s BMR would increase your total daily caloric intake.
    Lifting weights creates additional kean body mass, which in turn increases BMR. Accessibility is there for me in that I have a complete set of dumbbells and sustainability is there as I have used moderate weightlifting since I was 13, and I will turn 70 next month.
    I also now walk 1.5 miles 3X week and have just tried to reduce my time by walking faster. Read that faster walkers live longer.

    • Thanks for your comment! You raise a great point that I’d love to expand on. You’re completely right that BMR is by far where most calories are burned. It’s also true that the greatest determinant of BMR is body size. Larger bodies need more fuel. That said, it takes a significant change in body size to significantly impact BMR. 1-2 lbs of lean mass won’t make much of a difference. 10-20 lbs would, but it takes a ton of work to add that much lean mass, and it’s almost impossible to add that much lean mass without also adding some fat mass, and here our discussion about losing weight. It’s also very difficult to add significant amounts of lean mass while in a caloric deficit. Lifting weights is extremely effective for the maintenance of healthy body weight, but not particularly effective as a weight loss strategy. Both are important, and related, but they aren’t the same thing.

      And you’re right about there being a relationship between walking speed and mortality risk. It sounds like you have a great training plan in place. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  • Excellent article. I have spinal stenosis with back and leg pain. I have always been an avid walker. I have had to slow down, but gradually getting out there again. Thank you.

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