What Is the Best Exercise for Weight Loss?

Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Reviewed by Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Written by Lauren Panoff

Published 04/06/2024

Ask 10 people what the best exercise for weight loss is and you might get 10 different answers. There are lots of ways to move your body. What you choose depends on what you like, what you’re good at and the goals you’re chasing.

When it comes to weight loss, exercise is key to losing fat and building muscle. However, it’s only one component of sustainable weight management — you can’t forget good nutrition and better sleep.

What’s the best exercise to lose weight? Cardiovascular (aerobic) exercises of varying intensity combined with resistance training. Sounds simple, but there are actually tons of ways to go about it.

We’re giving you the main takeaways, including the nine best types of exercise for weight loss and how much you should plan to move your body each week.

There are plenty of ways to lose weight fast, but that doesn’t mean they’re good ideas.

While many fad diets promise quick weight loss, they have downsides. You could end up lacking key nutrients and may regain weight when you start eating normally again.

The same goes for exercise. Spending six hours a day at the gym could lead to weight loss — but it’s not sustainable and doesn’t take into account nutrition or lifestyle habits.

Rather than focusing on speed, the better question is how to lose weight safely in a way that provides lasting outcomes. 

A good exercise routine is essential to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. It’s also one part of a holistic approach that includes nutrition (like eating more lean protein), better sleep and healthier lifestyle habits (like stress management, not smoking and limiting alcohol).

Intentionally moving your body most days of the week supports weight loss and building muscle mass. This can increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR), how many calories your body burns each day).

Exercise can quickly become a chore if you’re just going through the motions. Nobody wants to drag themselves to the gym unwillingly day after day.

There’s no single best type of exercise for weight loss. It’s all about exploring workouts you enjoy doing — so you’ll keep doing them.

To help with ideas, we’ve put together a list of nine effective exercises to lose weight.

1. High-Intensity Interval Training

Some consider high-intensity interval training (HIIT) the best exercise for weight loss.

It combines short bursts of intense activity followed by brief rest periods or lower-intensity (active recovery) periods. The intense intervals elevate your heart rate, pushing your body into an anaerobic state — meaning your body breaks down glucose (blood sugar) without oxygen.

HIIT workouts can give you similar results as continuous aerobic training (like jogging or walking) but typically burn more calories in a shorter amount of time. They’re helpful for weight loss because they boost your metabolism to continue burning more calories even after you’re done exercising.

Plus, HIIT can help preserve lean muscle mass while promoting fat loss, resulting in a more toned body composition over time.

Try this:

  • Sprinting intervals. Sprint for 30 seconds, followed by walking or jogging for one minute. Repeat for 20 minutes.

  • Circuit training. Perform a circuit of bodyweight exercises — such as burpees, jump squats and mountain climbers for 45 seconds each — with 15 seconds of rest in between. Repeat the circuit two or three times.

2. Strength Training

Strength training uses resistance, like weights or resistance bands, to build and tone muscles. Unlike cardio, it targets muscle development, which helps increase energy expenditure even when you’re at rest. 

By building lean muscle mass, strength training can result in a higher basal metabolic rate, supporting your weight loss efforts by helping you burn more calories throughout the day.

What’s more, resistance training helps improve your overall body composition as fat is gradually replaced with muscle. Compound exercises like squats, deadlifts and lunges can be particularly effective.

Try this: 

  • Squats. Do squats using a barbell, dumbbells or just your bodyweight to target muscles in your legs, hips and glutes.

  • Bench press. Use a barbell or dumbbells to perform bench presses, targeting the muscles in your chest, shoulders and arms.

  • Deadlifts. Do deadlifts with a barbell or kettlebells to engage the muscles in your lower back, glutes, hamstrings and core.

3. Cardiovascular Exercises

Cardio exercise, aka aerobic exercise, elevates your heart rate and increases oxygen consumption. For example, running, cycling, swimming and brisk walking.

Cardio exercise is important for weight loss because it burns calories effectively, helping to create a calorie deficit necessary for shedding excess body fat. 

A consistent cardio routine can also improve your cardiovascular health, endurance and stamina.

Try this: 

  • Running. Jog or sprint outdoors, on a treadmill or on a track to elevate your heart rate and burn fat.

  • Cycling. Ride a stationary bike or cycle outdoors to engage your large muscle groups and boost your cardiovascular health.

4. Jumping Rope

Now might be a good time to pull out your jump rope from middle school and give it a new purpose.

Jumping rope is one of the most simple exercises to lose weight. Continuously hopping over a rope (or even just hopping without a rope) engages your legs, core and arms while elevating your heart rate.

This effective cardio workout burns a significant amount of calories in a short amount of time, making it beneficial for weight loss. Plus, it can be done anywhere since you need minimal space and equipment.

Jumping rope may not be easy as an adult — but it can be an opportunity to improve your coordination, rhythm, agility and stamina while getting your daily steps in.

Try this: 

  • Interval training. Do high-intensity jumping intervals followed by brief rest periods to maximize calorie burn and elevate metabolism.

  • Circuit workouts. Include jumping rope as part of a circuit routine, alternating between rope jumps and other strength or cardio exercises to keep your heart rate up and promote fat loss.

  • Endurance exercise. Perform continuous jumping-rope sessions to boost your cardiovascular endurance and energy expenditure.

5. Circuit Training

Circuit training is doing a series of exercises in sequence with minimal rest between each exercise, then repeating the process. If you ever see a bunch of outdoor adult gym equipment in a park, it’s probably set up for circuit training. 

Circuit training combines cardio and strength to target multiple muscle groups and keep your heart rate elevated. It’s effective for weight loss because it maximizes calorie burn and promotes fat loss by incorporating both aerobic and anaerobic activities within a single workout session.

The high intensity and variety of exercises in circuit training help to boost metabolism, increase muscle mass and support your overall fitness, all of which are important for sustainable weight loss.

Try this: 

  • Full-body circuits. Design circuits that use compound exercises — like squats, push-ups, lunges and burpees — to engage multiple muscle groups at the same time. This maximizes your calorie burn and builds strength.

  • High-intensity intervals. Do bursts of high-intensity cardio exercises — like jumping jacks, mountain climbers or sprints — between strength exercises to elevate your heart rate and accelerate fat burning.

6. Burpees

Whether you “eat burpees for breakfast” or prefer them as an occasional weight loss snack, they’re an easy exercise to lose weight and a good measure of fitness.

A burpee is done by touching your chest to the ground (as if you’re about to do a push-up), then jumping your feet up toward your hands and ending with a vertical jump with your hands in the air — all in rapid succession. Put this on repeat for a burpee series.

Burpees are among the best fat-burning exercises because they combine elements of strength training and cardiovascular conditioning. They engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, which boosts calorie expenditure and fat burning. 

The high-intensity nature of burpees elevates your heart rate and metabolism, ultimately supporting your weight loss efforts.

Try this:

  • Burpee intervals. Do burpees for a specific duration, say, 30 seconds, followed by a brief rest period or a lower-intensity exercise (like bicycle crunches). Do a few rounds to elevate your heart rate and maximize fat burn.

  • Burpee challenge. Set a goal to complete a certain number of burpees within a set time frame. As you get better, you can increase your speed or number of burpees per session.

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7. Playing Sports

Don’t feel like going to the gym all the time? Playing sports counts too.

Sports offer a dynamic way to engage in physical activity. They often involve a combination of cardio, strength training and agility, which can promote weight loss.

The competitive and social nature of sports can also motivate you to push yourself harder. And since you’re having fun, they can be easy workouts to lose weight.

Try this: 

  • Join a recreational sports league. Participate in organized sports leagues through your city or local rec center like soccer, basketball or volleyball. This is a good way to be active with the added benefit of camaraderie and group motivation.

  • Make sports social. Organize friendly matches or sports outings like ultimate frisbee, beach volleyball or hiking with friends. Combining physical fitness with socialization can make it more enjoyable.

8. Swimming

Swimming laps and aquatic aerobics can be surprisingly hard but also low-impact. Swimming is a highly effective full-body exercise for weight loss because it engages multiple muscle groups while still being gentle on the joints.

Water creates resistance, making swimming a great cardio exercise that promotes fat loss.

Swimming is a great option for all fitness levels, whether you’re looking for leisurely laps on a recovery day or a more high-intensity workout.

Try this: 

  • Interval training. Alternate between intense swimming and active recovery, like doing a crawl-stroke lap, then treading water to keep your heart rate elevated.

  • Swim workouts. Follow structured swim workouts that include a variety of strokes and drills, focusing on increasing distance, speed or intensity to challenge your body and support weight loss.

  • Aqua aerobics class. Many local rec centers offer these types of classes, which involve a mixture of challenges for cardio, muscle strength and flexibility. 

9. Cycling

Whether you prefer biking outside or on a stationary bike in your living room, cycling is an effective form of cardio that engages large muscle groups in your legs, glutes and abs.

Riding a bike at a moderate to high intensity increases your heart rate and metabolism. It’s also a low-impact activity, making it suitable for all fitness levels and minimizing the risk of injury.

Cycling offers plenty of opportunities to explore different terrains, intensities and durations.

Try this: 

  • Commuting by bike. No time to exercise some days but live close to work? Consider commuting by bike.

  • Long-distance rides. Plan regular longer rides — such as weekend outings or cycling excursions — to explore new routes, challenge yourself and increase your endurance while burning a significant number of calories to support your weight loss goals.

  • Indoor cycling classes. Try cycling classes at a gym or fitness studio, where an instructor can guide and encourage you in a new environment. 

Now that you have some ideas, you might be wondering, How long should I work out to lose weight? First, we want to acknowledge that everyone starts their fitness and weight loss journey at a different place.

Experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise each week for general health. This would be about 10 to 20 minutes a day, depending on the intensity.

For long-term weight loss, you might aim to increase this to 200 to 300 minutes of exercise per week (or 28 to 42 minutes a day). And it doesn’t have to be every day. For instance, you might do 45 to 60 minutes of exercise five days a week or three one-hour workouts and two 30-minute workouts.

Incorporating a variety of movements in your exercise routine can be helpful for weight loss by working different muscles and giving your body new challenges.

Besides cardio, experts recommend resistance or strength training at least twice a week.

Exercise may not lead to weight loss on its own, though it can certainly help. Combining it with a nutritious eating plan and healthy lifestyle habits might help you lose anywhere from a half-pound to two pounds a week.

While there are specific goals for the amount of exercise needed to promote weight loss, it’s important to honor where you’re starting from and increase gradually to ensure safety and sustainability.

If you’re aiming for safe, sustainable weight loss, losing half a pound to a pound a week is a reasonable goal. You might be able to safely lose up to two pounds a week, depending on your starting weight and how much you’re exercising.

Ask your healthcare provider what they recommend for a weekly weight loss goal.

If it’s overwhelming to think about how to lose weight with exercises, think about it more in the sense of daily movement.

You might not always feel up to working out — and trust us, we all have days like that. But moving your body each day doing something you enjoy (even if it’s just walking) will support your weight loss goals.

So, what is the best exercise to lose weight? Honestly, it depends.

There’s no question that exercise is an essential element of weight loss and overall health. However, that doesn’t mean every exercise routine is a one-size-fits-all. As you think about workouts to lose weight, keep these things in mind:

  • It’s only one component. A holistic approach to healthy weight management includes not just exercise but also good nutrition, better sleep and other supportive lifestyle habits. Weight loss medications may also be a good option. Overall, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Daily movement matters. Taking expert advice into consideration, design an exercise routine that’s realistic and works well for you. Find ways to make daily movement a priority, whether it’s an exercise from the list above or taking a brisk walk around the block.

  • Make it enjoyable. Exercise should be challenging — at least, not so much that you dread it. Forcing yourself to do things you hate isn’t going to last long. Instead, find forms of exercises you enjoy so you keep doing them.

Always consult a healthcare provider before starting a new workout routine for weight loss to make sure it’s safe and appropriate for you. For personalized help with other aspects of your weight loss plan, start by taking our free assessment.

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