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Physical activity is a vital component of any weight loss program. But more than just enhancing daily calorie burn, exercise helps get rid of fat, preserve muscle and reduce fat stores deep in the belly (visceral fat) linked to metabolic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Yet despite most experts recommending exercise to enhance weight loss, there’s little consensus about what type of exercise is the most effective at getting rid of unwanted pounds.
Some people swear that resistance (weight) training is the key to weight loss. Others think that the higher calorie burn of aerobic exercise makes it the best choice for dropping weight. And then there are those who insist that exercise plays a far greater role in weight maintenance than in weight loss.
Hoping to shed more light on exercise as a weight loss tool, a French research team reviewed and summarized the findings of 149 high quality studies that assessed the effects of physical activity on weight loss, fat loss, visceral fat loss, body composition and weight maintenance. To be included in the review the studies needed to feature either aerobic training, resistance training or high intensity interval training (HIIT) and compare exercise to a non-exercise control group or include another type of intervention like diet (with the appropriate control group) and report on findings related to either weight loss, fat loss, lean mass (muscle) loss or weight maintenance. All the studies were published between 2010-2019 and included overweight or obese adults.
Proving the value of exercise, the results indicate that regardless of the type of training, exercisers experienced a 1.5-3.5 kilograms greater weight loss than non-exercisers. Also interesting was a trend toward greater weight loss, of about one kilogram, when exercise and diet were combined versus dieting alone.
When comparing one type of exercise against the other, aerobic exercise outperformed resistance exercise in almost all the studies, with about a kilogram more weight and fat lost in each instance. When comparing HIIT training to moderate intensity aerobic exercise, high intensity interval training resulted in more pounds lost when energy expenditure between the two forms of exercise was matched. When energy expenditure wasn’t matched, moderate intensity exercise burned off more weight. But before you change what you’re doing, the difference in weight loss between the two types of exercise was about 700 grams — not enough to warrant a change if you prefer one type of workout over the other.
When it comes to decreasing the amount of belly fat located around your internal organs, all forms of aerobic exercise and aerobic exercise combined with resistance training resulted in a meaningful reduction in visceral fat. The same cannot be said for resistance exercise alone, which demonstrated limited potential for getting rid of visceral fat. It’s also clear that visceral fat stores can be significantly reduced even when weight loss doesn’t occur and that exercise beats diet alone when it comes to losing troublesome deep belly fat.
“During moderate weight loss, for example, five per cent of initial body weight, the associated loss of visceral adipose tissue has been estimated at 21 per cent in response to exercise and 13 per cent in response to diet,” said the French researchers.
As to the effect of preserving muscle during periods of weight loss, resistance exercise proved the most successful at reducing the loss of lean body mass. This finding is in line with the understanding that weight training is superior in stimulating muscle growth and maintaining or increasing lean body mass.
Finally, there was no evidence that lots of exercise beats more moderate levels of physical activity when it comes to keeping weight off. These results fall in line with other recent studies suggesting that exercise is important in weight maintenance, but there’s likely little difference in the long-term results of those who accumulate impressive exercise minutes and those who spend a more modest amount of time working out.
What do all these results mean for anyone hoping to lose unwanted pounds? It confirms the advice of experts who recommend regular exercise but also corroborates their caution against investing all weight loss efforts into exercise alone. It also suggests that any type of aerobic exercise outperforms resistance training or diet alone when it comes to weight loss but that resistance training is superior at maintaining muscle mass.
Bottom line is that even small amounts of weight loss can improve overall health and longevity, so there’s value in exercise beyond what you see on the scale and whether or not you achieve your goal weight. But if long-term weight loss is your goal, you need a multi-pronged approach. Maximizing results lies in combining regular aerobic exercise with dietary changes and incorporating strategies like goal setting, sleep enhancement and stress management into your daily routine. Bottom line, successful weight loss involves a lot of moving parts beyond just those attached to your body.
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