With summer approaching, we have vacations, pool parties, beach outings, and weddings to look forward to. As such, a lot of people are currently thinking about how they can drop a few pounds before said events. As a trainer, the most common question I get from new clients is how much should you exercise to lose weight, and look better naked. If you look around the internet, you’ll see people claiming you don’t need to exercise at all, and people who claim that you need to do at least an hour of cardio every day, and some strength workouts on top of that.
Both of those approaches can work, but for optimal results, you want to be somewhere in the middle.
Let’s start with square one.
Fat loss happens in a caloric deficit. This means you’re eating less food than you need to maintain your current energy output. If you burn 2,500 calories every, but you’re only eating 1,900, you’ll burn through stored energy, either muscle or body fat.
How do you know when you’re in a deficit? Well, if the scale starts to move down after a few days, you’re more than likely doing it right. You’ll also feel slightly hungry between meals, or when it’s been a while since you’ve eaten. This does NOT mean you need to eat more food; this means it’s working.
If you find yourself shaking with hunger, getting headaches, and feeling weak or fatigued, you probably need to eat a little more food. Save those miserable feelings for contest prep or photo shoot mode.
Otherwise, you should be feeling a little big of hunger between meals, and throughout the day. Nothing unbearable, but you’ll notice it. Chase this feeling, and learn to love it, as it means your diet is working. If you’re never hungry on a diet, and each meal fills you up until the next time you eat, you’re probably eating a bit too much food.
There are tricks to help with this, like sparkling water, black coffee, and eating massive bowls of leafy greens with meals, but that’s a topic for another day.
How much exercise do you need to create a caloric deficit?
There are two ways to create a deficit for yourself when fat loss stalls. You can burn more calories, which means more exercise throughout the week, or you can simply eat less food. Eventually, you will get to a point where you simply can’t lower your food intake anymore, and you’ll need to start exercising. In the beginning, you can get away without exercise if you so chose.
I had an online client who was coming off of a foot injury, and was unable to move very much. Through diet alone, she ended up dropping weight too fast, and we had to bump up her food to slow things down. So yeah, it can happen – exercise isn’t absolutely necessary for fat loss. If you don’t have access to a gym, or aren’t sure of how to exercise, there’s nothing wrong with starting with good nutrition habits to get the ball rolling, and adding exercise later.
So why exercise?
While you don’t have to exercise, you should be if you really want to optimize your results. Hands down, the best approach to fat loss is a combination of both. There’s one important thing you need to keep in mind as you think about a workout routine.
Exercise should be used to turn your body into a fat-burning machine 24 hours a day. It should not be seen purely as a way to burn calories.
Look, burning calories is a nice side effect and all, but that’s not what we’re after. Think about what happens when you go on a jog, or hit a long session on the stairmill. At best, you maybe burn 200-300 calories, if you’re lucky, and then your body cools down and returns to normal. This has it’s place, but only once everything else is taken care of–a good nutrition plan, and regular resistance training.
I don’t know about you, but I could eat those 200-300 calories burned from cardio like nothing. That’s a protein shake and some fruit, which you burned off doing 30-45 minutes of miserable cardio. I’d prefer to just eat less, and save myself the misery.
Instead of trying to walk your way thin, I suggest you lift some weights. Let’s look at the benefits of resistance training as they apply to fat loss.
- Elevated metabolism for hours and hours after your session
- More lean muscle mass = more calories burned all day long
- Short-term, your body releases HGH and testosterone, which increase fat-burning
- Resistance training can improve insulin sensitivity, making sure you store carbs in your muscles, not as fat.
- Resistance training stimulates your muscles, encouraging your body to keep them rather than burn them as fuel.
If you know anyone who’s gone on a diet without lifting weights, you’ve probably seen them, well, shrink. They could drop 15 pounds, but if the structure underneath that fat isn’t changing, they probably won’t look too much different. Just a smaller version of themselves. With resistance training, you can improve your muscle mass, your posture, and strengthen your core muscles, which can act like natural Spanx and pull things in a bit.
Now you’re getting all sorts of hormonal benefits, increasing muscle mass, and you’ll actually look different as you diet down. This is a win-win.
Get to the point – how much exercise do I need?
If you’re starting out, I’d aim for 2-3 sessions per week. Your workouts can be anywhere from 30-60 minutes–shorter if you work hard and don’t mess around on your phone between sets, longer if you prefer to work at a slower pace, and/or get distracted easily.
I always have new clients start out with strength training at least three times per week whenever possible, and nothing more. When fat loss stalls, we either decrease food, or add a little bit of cardio over the week. Usually a combination of both as the diet progresses.
Cardio isn’t bad, but I simply use at a tool for improving general health, and burning some extra calories. For me personally, I know I’d rather throw in a cardio session or two and be able to eat a bit more food, than skip cardio and be hungry all day.
If you’re trying to get started losing some fat, aim for 3 resistance training workouts per week, get your diet on track, and watch the results come. If you just can’t figure it out, and you want a little professional help, I offer a variety of coaching services, or you can find a good trainer at your local gym, and start there.