Which exercise or activity is best for fat loss? Here are three of the best research-based exercises designed for maximum weight loss.
Most articles on this topic are opinion-based, unrealistic for most people to follow, and exclude essential information. This leaves too many people feeling defeated after working hard without dropping fat.
I set out to fix this. I spent 11 hours scouring academic articles and included only practical, time-tested tips to lose fat.
Each of these exercises are designed to help you bring together the three scientific pillars of fat-loss: cardio, strength-training, and nutrition.
Whatever fat-burning changes you plan to make, please consult with trusted medical and health professionals first.
Brief overview of fat-loss approaches
Writers at Harvard Health, explain that each pound of fat consists of about 3,500 calories.
This means that if you would like to lose a pound of fat each week, theoretically, you have a few options.
- Consume 3,500 calories less than your body uses each week (or 500 calories less each day)
- Burn 3,500 calories more than your body uses each week (or 500 more per day)
- Reduce your calories and increase the number of calories you burn so that you are in a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories 
- Some people burn fat by running ultramarathons so they can eat more food
- Others lose weight by eating primarily carrots so they can move very little
- And other people burn fat through a less-extreme middle ground
Which exercise or activity is best for fat loss?
Exercise #1: Burn fat through cardio
It is common for fitness experts to tell you to make sure whatever exercise you do – you just have to go “all out” to burn calories.
I once followed similar advice. I read that running was the best activity for fat loss.
I was so motivated, I woke up early, ran for 30 minutes, then hobbled around for 10 days because my legs hurt so bad. I then sat around more, ate junk food, and put on more fat than I burned. Years later, I went for another run.
Another fitness expert might tell you if you want to burn fat fast, you should skip rope for a few hours because jumping rope has been found to burn more calories per hour than many other activities.
The problem with this advice is that most people aren’t going to do this consistently.
I encourage you to choose a form of cardio that you will actually enjoy and…
Focus on frequency first!
A much more sustainable way to integrate cardio is to pause and ask yourself:
“How might I integrate cardio in my life in a way that I would actually enjoy?”
Perhaps you could pair your cardio session with something you already really like to do.
Here are a few examples:
- Love learning and being outside? Why not listen to audiobooks while walking or jogging?
- Fancy watching movies, sports, or that new series? These are all awesome things you can do while riding an exercise bike!
- Or maybe there is an activity that you delight upon by itself or with a goal in mind?
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Fitness classes with a friend
- Boxing or martial arts
- Training for a race
Most forms of movement have awesome fat-burning potential. The trick is to make cardio something you will do often. Later you can focus on upping the intensity and duration of each session.
Action step #1: Choose a fat-burning activity that you can actually see yourself enjoying often
Action step #2: Decide when, where, with whom, and how often you would like to partake in this habit
Action step #3: Create a plan to make this a routine that becomes part of your life. For example, you might:
- Decide what you will pair with this activity to make it extra enjoyable
- Consider creating or joining an accountability group where you can post a picture of yourself during or immediately after this cardio activity
- Make it really easy to remember and to start each cardio session (for example, put your running shoes by the door and set a reminder on your phone).
Action step #4: Start small! It may be incredibly tempting to go “all in,” but fight the urge! Give your brain time to associate pleasure with your cardio activity. Or at least do whatever you can to avoid linking exercise to pain like I did in the running example above!
Which exercise or activity is best for fat loss? The answer depends on you! Which cardio activity are you most likely to stick with?
Once you’re hooked – increase the duration and intensity
Imagine…you actually find yourself feeling excited for your next cardio session!
Once you’ve successfully made short cardio sessions a part of your life that you actually look forward to – you may want to burn even more fat by increasing the duration or intensity of your cardio sessions.
By increasing the length of your cardio sessions you will burn more calories.
Additionally, exercising more can make your life better by improving your:
Short on time? Consider using high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to burn the same amount of calories in less time.
There are many ways to do HIIT. Pretty much any form of cardio could be a HIIT workout. For example, HIIT can be done through running, skipping, swimming, biking, rowing, and many other forms of cardio exercise.
One way to do HIIT is to sprint for 10 seconds followed by dropping it down to a lower intensity for 60 seconds.
Depending on one’s fitness and comfort levels, a person may start with performing just one 5 or 10-second high-intensity interval followed by a longer low-intensity interval. As a person’s fitness levels improve, she may want to increase the number and time of high-intensity intervals.
For example, when able to complete 10 cycles of 10-second sprints (each followed by a 60-second lower intensity interval), a person may want to increase the high-intensity periods by 5 seconds each week. Many people find it is best to keep the sprints no longer than 30-60 seconds.
In the European Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers explain that HIIT sessions may result in burning more calories even after the workout .
Researchers published in the journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism describe that shorter HIIT sessions have similar fat-burning potential over a 24-hour period compared to longer, lower-intensity sessions .
Looking to up the fat-burning even further? If you’ve got the stomach for it, you might want to experiment with doing cardio sessions first thing in the morning before eating anything. After reviewing a number of research studies, Schoenfeld (2011) concluded that more fat can be broken down when performing cardiovascular exercise in a fasted state .
Which exercise or activity is best for fat loss?
Exercise #2: Eat for fat loss
When I was trying to lose fat I started tracking my calories. I entered the amount and types of food and beverages I consumed using a free calorie tracking app installed on my iPhone. I also weighed myself each morning.
I found it was relatively easy to stick to my daily calorie budget (under 2200 calories) from Sunday to Thursday, but I often ate way more calories on the weekends.
Despite eating 2200 or fewer calories of extra lean ground turkey and fibrous vegetables from Sunday to Thursday, I actually managed to gain fat!
It was then that I decided to perform an 80/20 analysis on my eating behaviors.
This is a fancy way of saying that I asked myself the following question:
Assuming that the 80/20 rule applies to my fat gain, when might I be consuming the calories that added up to 80% or more of my fat gained?
I learned that I was consuming 80% or more of the extra calories that were increasing my weight gain between 7:30pm and 10:30pm on Friday and Saturday nights.
This meant that I was actually consuming 80% of the calories that were increasing my weight in a timeframe that consisted of less than 4% of my weekly hours.
Those extra calories often came in the form of pizza, chips, sweets, and alcohol.
I needed to find a way to make it more difficult to consume those calories!
I made a new Friday and Saturday evening routine. I prepared 2 healthy soups that consisted of 2 cups of chicken broth, ½ pound of extra lean ground turkey, about 400 grams of fibrous vegetables such as green beans, carrots and cauliflower, and low calorie-spices.
Additionally, my wife, Megan and I, vowed to limit the tempting foods and beverages in our house so that it would be much more difficult to go over 3,000 calories in one day.
“I began to realize that my results had very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed.”
Action Step #1:
- Make it a habit to eat at least 50% fibrous vegetables with each meal and snack (ex. spinach, lettuce, cauliflower, green beans, broccoli, carrots, Google fibrous vegetables for more).
- The remaining calories in each meal can consist of lean proteins (skinless chicken breast, lean turkey, protein powder, tofu, Google lean proteins for more)
- For flavor use dried spices and herbs. Avoid sauces high in fat, sugar, or other calories.
- Avoid consuming any beverages high in calories such as juice, soda, or other sugary drinks. Drink water, black coffee or tea, and other zero-calories drinks. Many people are able
Action step #2: Begin weighing yourself first thing in the morning at the same time before drinking or eating anything. Not only can the scale help you measure your progress, in a randomized controlled study, Dr. Steinberg et. al (2015) found that people who weighed themselves daily lost 3x more weight than people who did not .
Action step #3: After a week, ask yourself the following two questions to see if you have unveiled a pattern:
- What day or time frame might I be consuming the calories that add up to 80% or more of my fat gained?
- What are the 20% of foods or bevarages that are responsible for 80% or more of my fat gain?
Action step #4: Create and implement a plan to make it (much) more difficult to consume those excess calories in your routine ways.
For example, if you consume the most calories when going for drinks and food at your local pub after work – find some friends and go for a walk instead. If this is your challenge, you are not alone. Dr. C. P. Herman (2015), a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, found that people tend to eat more in the presence of others .
Surprisingly food intake increased with the size of the group .
If you have tended to binge-out on Friday and Saturday nights, plan ahead and fill up on fibrous vegetables and foods that are high in water content and low in caloric density. Think broth-based, non-creamy soups and fibrous vegetables (like carrots, green beans, broccoli, and many other leafy vegetables). Having a belly full of vegetables will probably make it more of a challenge to cram foods with high caloric density (such as beer, pizza, and most things with high contents of fat, carbs, and sugars).
If it is one or two foods, such as soda or crackers, that are the cause of 80% of your excess calories, replace them with low caloric density alternatives.
Perhaps you would plan to keep only a small amount or none of the tempting treats in your house so that it is less convenient to over-indulge. You could also ask your partner or roommate to hide the treats from you until you plan on enjoying them.
Action step #5: Consider planning other ways to relax or reduce your stress levels. After speaking to many colleagues, we found that we ate to comfort or soothe ourselves after stressful days at work. Some of my favorites are meditating with deep, rhythmic breathing, laying down and listening to calming music, kicking stress with cleaning or cardio, or taking a bath.
Action step #6: Start tracking your calories using one of the free apps (Noom and Myfitnesspal are two popular options)
Action step #7: If the above steps aren’t helping stick to them, but you may have to get more precise with your caloric intake. If you are unsure how many calories to eat to lose fat (caloric deficit) or build muscle, a good starting point can be using this online calorie calculator.
Which exercise or activity is best for fat loss? Great question! Each person has different eating styles and preferences. Put on your science hat and experiment until you crack your weight loss code.
If the online calculator is not working, try multiplying your bodyweight by between 8 (for rapid weight loss) and 11 (for slower, steadier weight loss). For example, if you weigh 216, you might use the following calculations:
Rapid weight loss: 220 x 8 = 1,728 calories
Slower, steadier weight loss: 216 x 11 = 2,376 calories
I’d recommend starting somewhere in the middle, experiment, measure your progress, and refine your approach until you are getting the results you want
Which exercise or activity is best for fat loss?
Exercise #3: Build fat-burning muscle
Why focus on strength training when wanting to burn fat?
Allow me to illustrate with a memorable experience during a bicycle tour in Iceland.
My wife, Megan, our good buddy, Dan, and I rode our pedal bikes in Iceland for about 3 weeks.
We would cycle for 3- 5 hours each day, eat in a calorie deficit, and since there was a gym in pretty much every town, we would lift weights 1-2 times a week. My favorite part was soaking in the hot pools after!
During this 3-week stretch, I lost 37 pounds while actually getting stronger based on my lifts in the gym.
Don’t believe me?
Here are 7 science-based reasons why strength-training can help you burn fat:
- Muscle is metabolically active which means that having more muscle results in burning more calories – even when you sleep!  
- You burn additional calories during strength-training sessions 
- Your body continues to burn more calories after strength-training sessions 
- If you overeat or consume more calories than necessary, but perform a strength-training session, the extra calories are more likely to be used to build muscles instead of being stored as fat 
- If you are eating in a calorie deficit but you have been lifting weights or using bodyweight exercises, you will be more likely to burn fat as opposed to muscle 
- When combined with a solid eating and cardio plan, you are more likely to burn more fat and improve your body composition  
- It can keep you moving and burning fat by preventing injuries. After reviewing various randomized controlled studies, researchers concluded in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that “strength training reduced sports injuries to less than 1/3 and overuse injuries could be almost halved” 
Action step #1: Decide on and commit to carrying out a strength-training routine. If you have weights at home or access to a gym find a plan and commit to performing 2-3 strength training sessions per week. Make sure you warm up first and know how to properly perform each exercise.
Alternative to Action step #1: If you plan to work out from home without special equipment – try this beginner bodyweight workout. If you are ready for something more advanced, you might want to try this advanced workout plan from nerdfitness.com.
Having your doubts about the effectiveness of bodyweight work outs?
Get some inspiration by reading how Herschel Walker – former pro football player, pro mixed martial artist, university track star, and Olympic bob sledder leaned on bodyweight workouts throughout his incredibly diverse athletic career.
Which ever strength-training route you pursue, make sure you warm up first and know how to properly perform each exercise.
If you are unsure, check with your doctor, physical therapist, and/or other health professionals before starting a program.
Awesome work making it to the end of this lengthy post! Now is a great time to get started with exercise #1 to make your cardio plan.