What is the best exercise for fat loss? Part V – the conclusion

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I wondered what the best exercise for fat loss was. I honestly didn’t know the answer, but now feel I have acquired a more thorough understanding. As a scientist I ask questions I want answered and work to find the answers. However, all this digging in the details and nerding about does not mean fat loss should be a primary motivation for exercising. On the contrary, if the only reason that you exercise is to try to lose weight and everything else about exercising is a pain in the ass, I would recommend you to stop exercising. No matter your external motivation for exercising, be it health in general, weight loss, muscle strength or flexibility, if you want exercise to be a positive part of your life you need to find an exercise form that gives you something more, that is motivated by internal factors, preferably that you enjoy the actual exercising. If you want to lose weight and you know high intensity strength based exercise is the most effective exercise, but you would rather swim because you really like swimming, than the choice is simple. Swim!

That being said, for the sake of curiosity, let’s see what the best exercise for fat loss is.

There is not enough data to say much about what exercise form is more efficient, whether running is better than cycling for example or a step machine better than elliptical trainer. There are just too many other variables. There is however enough data to make a calculated guess about aerobic versus resistance exercise, and about exercise amount and intensity.

Just wanted to illustrate the expected effects of exercising without dieting. The below table gives a few examples of just how much weight and fat you can expect to lose. Results are not god, and tend to become poorer in time in the longer lasting trials. Many of the results are non significant. What this tells us is that diet matters. A lot. 

It seems that resistance exercise is or can be just as effective as aerobic exercise in improving body composition. Resistance exercise usually cause some fat loss while also increasing muscle mass. Aerobic exercise usually causes larger loss of fat, but also larger loss of muscle. High intensity aerobic exercise causes less lean mass loss than low intensity.

The best exercise for fat loss should:

– be of medium to high intensity (frequently bring you above lactate threshold)

– include resistance exercises

– be interval based (30 min of sprint intervals is most likely better than 60 min jogging)

– not be performed every day (rest is important and more is not better than the right amount)

– exercise the whole body

– be combined with a high protein low glycemic diet for maximal improvement in body composition.

That’s it, as far as I can tell. Feel free to disagree. Tomorrow I’m off to the Norwegian Directorate of Health and the unveiling of the new national dietary guidelines. The snack there is crap (usually fruit), but hopefully there’s coffee and plenty of it.

4 kommentarer

  1. Hi Pål, thanks for this excellent series of posts.

    The one point I wonder is the » high protein» and «low glycemic» part.

    For folks who can handle that without problems, eating high GI foods together with protein after intense exercise may be optimal or quasi-optimal.

    On rest days going low GI makes sense to me, but not in the hours after the exercise session. That is, a cyclical approach.

    And I am referring to fat loss, not muscle gain. Initially the low GI approach may work fine, but over time that is bound to lead to undesirable long-term compensatory adaptations that might prevent fat loss beyond a certain point.


  2. Of course Ned. When I mention low GI I am referring to the superiority of restricting carbohydrates for fat loss, rather than other dietary strategies. Exercise combined with low GI usually gives better results than exercise and high GI. Lots of people can eat high GI no problem, but those are usually not the ones who need to lose weight. I know carbohydrate intake increases protein synthesis acutely after exercise, but I am more uncertain of what this actually means with respect to lean mass loss. Whether a low GI approach may cause negative long term effects on fat losing ability, I am not sure. Do you have any specific compensatory mechanisms in mind?


  3. One that comes to mind is an increase in the amount of fat stored in muscle.

    This would be a long term adaptation associated with regular glycogen depletion and somewhat poor replenishment.

    Of course this would depend to the level of glycogen depletion experienced. Let's say you need to replenish 150 g of liver + muscle glycogen. If only protein were to be used, you'd need more than 300 g of protein.

    Storing more fat in muscle is an adaptation that we see in endurance runners, and that is also associated with the aging process.


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