Yoga has many virtues, like these health benefits, but unfortunately, helping you scorch fat fast isn’t one of them. If you want to shed extra pounds quickly, you may need to adopt a new fitness plan for weight loss. While the math for subtracting numbers on the scale is simple—consume fewer calories than you burn during daily activities and your waistline will shrink—the right way to achieve this calorie deficit is different for everyone. Factors like your body composition (an obese person has different needs than someone who’s just looking to tone up a bit), eating habits, and workout preferences all have a big fat influence over your physique.
Exercise, in fact, can be a major wild card in your daily calories-in, calories-out equation, and not always a beneficial one. Breaking a sweat helps the body torch more calories than when you are at rest (i.e., sitting at your desk), and that’s good. Studies show that as you improve your fitness, your body’s basal metabolic rate (basically, the amount of calories you burn per day just by being alive and breathing) increases. That’s also good. But the downside is that exercise can increase your appetite, which explains why some people tend to overeat, specifically high-fat foods, after workouts, reports a 2011 British study published in the Journal of Obesity.
The general consensus from experts, according to the Mayo Clinic, is that cutting calories is more important than exercise for weight loss. However, that doesn’t mean you should toss your gym membership in the trash. Working out is still crucial to getting and staying in shape. Over time, you’ll get to a point where you won’t be so ravenous after a vigorous run or spin class. Studies show that exercise can actually decrease your brain’s responsiveness to food. If you can resist the initial urge to gorge on General Tso’s chicken post-workout, your brain will eventually ignore that “food as reward” signal.
So what approach to exercise will help you whittle down your waistline in the long haul? The best, most effective answer is the one that you’ll do consistently.
Take a look at your schedule and realistically consider how much time you can dedicate a week to this lifestyle change (it’s not a temporary adjustment, but rather a way of life). Think about your willingness to withstand discomfort since some intense forms of training can feel pretty hard. Also, take a moment to review your access to nearby fitness centers, gyms, recreational facilities, and/or parks. If you can’t get to one of these due to time-constraints, proximity, or budget issues, see if you can create a small at-home gym space within your home, like your living room, basement, or backyard.
Below we’ve rated five popular approaches to fitness and weight loss on a scale of 1 (easy breezy) to 10 (all out effort) using the following criteria: Effectiveness in burning calories, sustainability over time, accessibility (whether they require special equipment or a gym membership), and injury risk. See which best fits your lifestyle, fitness level, and overall goals.
1. High-Intensity Interval Training
High-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, has become more popular in recent years, and with good reason: Studies show HIIT improves aerobic fitness, cardiovascular health (it decreases blood pressure and improves one’s cholesterol profile), and can reduce abdominal fat while maintaining a person’s muscle mass.
One big benefit of this approach is its impact on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC—basically, the amount of energy (i.e., calories) your body burns after you work out. During the two-hour window immediately following training, HIIT increased the amount of calories used by up to 15 percent, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
During a HIIT session, you alternate between periods of intense effort (about an 8 or 9 out of 10) and periods of a more moderate effort (5 or 6) called recovery. The work-to-rest ratio varies based on your goal and fitness level. If you’re just starting out, try three minutes of reasonably intense effort followed by an equal period of recovery (for a 1:1 exercise-recovery ratio).
A big advantage of HIIT is that you can get more results in less training time. A very intense version of HIIT called Tabata has been shown to improve cardiovascular health in training sessions that last only four minutes. The bad news: Those four minutes are awfully hard. The inventor of this interval system, Japanese professor Izumi Tabata, once told The Guardian, “If you feel OK afterwards, you’ve not done it properly.”
Effectiveness Rating: 9
You’ll burn lots of calories during and after HIIT workouts.
You could incorporate HIIT into just about anything, including running or biking.
It bears repeating that HIIT is hard. Start with manageable intervals and build up over time. Allow for an ample rest period after a HIIT training session. One per week is a good place to start for a beginner.
Injury Risk: Varies
Your potential for suffering an injury during HIIT will change depending on which activity (running, cycling, etc.) you perform. People who are overweight, smoke, have been living a sedentary lifestyle, or who have a history of hypertension or diabetes should consult a doctor before attempting HIIT training.
2. Low-Intensity Interval Training
If you’ve been won over by the perks of interval training, but don’t want to feel like your workout will kill you, here’s awesome news: A recent Japanese study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that just by adding some intervals to a walk, you can improve your BMI and increase your long-term health.
The study found that people who alternated between walking briskly for three minutes and strolling casually for another three experienced more significant improvements in their leg strength and aerobic fitness than participants who simply walked at a sustained moderate pace. Researchers noticed these positive differences when people performed as little as 30 minutes of total activity per day, broken up into three 10-minute sessions.
Effectiveness Rating: 5
You’ll make gradual, consistent strides toward shedding pounds.
You can walk just about anywhere, although you might aim to do your intervals somewhere away from the gaze of your neighbors. Speed walking is as sexy as it sounds (not).
As the most basic activity we can do, you should be able to walk all the way into your ripe old rocking-chair-on-the-porch age.
Injury Risk: Negligible
So long as you don’t roll your ankle in a pothole, you’ll be fine. Invest in good footwear that feels comfortable and supportive.
Lifting weights is helpful for reducing fat, but it won’t burn as many calories as cardio like running during the activity, reports the ACSM. However, weightlifting does have a prolonged impact on EPOC—again, the measurement of calories burned during the period after exercise—and that impact is greater than the one produced by running.
What’s more, a recent study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise indicates that weight training could be a major player in helping people succeed in losing weight and keeping it off.
Researchers observed that women who lost a significant amount of weight (25 pounds or more) while performing upper- and lower-body resistance training were more likely to keep the pounds off than women who lost the same amount of weight through either diet and aerobic exercise or diet alone. So weightlifting would seem to be a helpful way to stop “big losers” from becoming “big re-gainers.”
Effectiveness Rating: 6
It’s not as huge of a calorie burner as aerobic cardio, but it delivers a helpful after-burn.
Requires a home gym or membership to a fitness center.
A mounting body of research indicates that you should weightlift, especially if you’re above age 65. Strength training can help prevent the loss of muscle and bone strength as you get older.
Injury Risk: Moderate
Consult with a doctor before starting a weight training regimen, particularly if you have a history of injuries that may restrict your mobility. When you’re starting out, you may want to work with a personal trainer until you feel comfortable that you’re performing the movements on your own with perfect form.
4. Bodyweight Training
Like weightlifting, bodyweight exercises are a form of resistance training, so they convey many of the same benefits: decreasing heart disease risk, lowering cholesterol, and reducing body fat, to name a few. The key differentiator is you use your own body weight rather than dumbbells, barbells, or machines to create the resistance.
There are two big advantages to using this approach. First, you can perform the moves anywhere, anytime since the only equipment you need (your body) will always be at hand. Second, there’s a lower risk that you’ll injure yourself doing bodyweight work than you would lifting weights. For an example, compare the consequences of dropping a heavy barbell during a bench press (broken ribs, broken clavicle, perhaps worse) to what happens if you mess up a push up (you lay down).
The only potential drawback to bodyweight training is that it can be difficult to use progressive resistance (that’s strength-coach speak for “varying the weights over time”), which is helpful for building muscle. But there are solutions—wearing a weight vest can help you kick your workout up a notch, or you can experiment with your sets, reps, and rest intervals to adjust the difficulty of your workout.
One more big plus for bodyweight training: You can combine bodyweight exercises with interval training to create a workout that challenges your muscles and cardiovascular system all at once. The result is a training session that can convey big benefits in a short amount of time. The “7-Minute Workout” that took the internet by storm last year uses this approach. And it’s not just web surfers who love it—it’s endorsed by the ACSM.
Effectiveness Rating: 5 (on it’s own) or 8 (combined with HIIT)
Pretty much the only thing that would prevent you from doing the “7-Minute Workout” would be if you were sharing a hotel room with a judgmental co-worker.
You remember Jack Palance at the 1992 Oscars, right? No?!? Ok, well, if you weren’t watching awards shows back then, what happened is the 73-year-old Palance rifled off 1-armed push-ups at the podium. Suffice it to say: You’ll be able to perform these moves for a long time, provided you stick with them.
Injury Risk: Low
5. Endurance Cardio
This category encompasses what most people probably think of when they hear the word “cardio”—jumping on to a treadmill, bike, or elliptical and maintaining a brisk pace for 20 minutes or more. The amount of calories one expends varies according to the activity, as weight-bearing exercises like running will burn more than non-weight bearing activities like cycling. While the exact total will depend on intensity and duration, generally speaking these activities burn more calories per training session than weightlifting.
One demoralizing trait of steady state workouts, however, is that they can provide diminishing returns over time. As your body gets used to your chosen activity (say, running), it will become more efficient at it, meaning you’ll use less energy when covering the same distance. This is what most people call a fitness plateau or rut. Your options then are to increase the distance or find ways to add new challenges to the workout, such as running hills or adding intervals, which runners affectionately call “fartleks.”
Improves cardiovascular health and burns fat or calories that might otherwise have been stored as fat had they went unused.
All you need to run is a pair of sneakers and a safe course. Biking is an easily available (though the gear is pricer) option as well. When riding, you’ll need to be even more aware of the nearby roads or mountain bike trails. Indoor training machines like an elliptical require either a gym membership or an expensive purchase.
You’ll probably be fine, but be aware that performing the same activity over and over, such as running multiple times a week, without performing other activities can put you at risk for a repetitive stress injury (something that gets hurt because of repeated use).
Injury Risk: Moderate
In addition to the previous note about stress-injuries, training out in public—such as taking a run on busy streets—can also subject you to risk. Be aware of your surroundings and wear reflective clothing if running or biking after dark.
The Bottom Line: Try a Balanced Approach
A blend of strength training (whether with weights or just using your body) and aerobic exercise is ideal for getting in shape and staying that way, according to the ACSM. Each method described above offers benefits, so getting a little bit of each into your routine—by, say, performing two weight-training workouts, two endurance cardio workouts, and an interval session per week—will allow you to reap the rewards of all of them. Keep your training sessions at a manageable length (20 to 30 minutes should do it for most), strive for consistency and keep in mind this advice from ACSM: “Regular physical activity will provide more health benefits than sporadic, high-intensity workouts, so choose exercises you are likely to enjoy and that you can incorporate into your schedule.”