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12 Best Exercises to Lose Weight

Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD

Published in Weight Loss

11 min read

July 7, 2022
two people with lemonade in the park
two people with lemonade in the park

An optimal diet is important for weight loss, but any good weight loss strategy should aim to include an effective workout plan.  

From cardio to daily walking to weight training, there are lots of ways to keep active. While it’s a good idea to vary the kinds of exercise you do, knowing which type of exercise is most helpful for your individual goals is key. 

Whether you’re trying to lose weight or simply improve your overall metabolic health (or both), you’ll want to incorporate a variety of vigorous exercises in order to boost your metabolism.

In this article, we’ll cover 12 of the best exercises for losing weight, building muscle, and improving your metabolism. 

1) Running 

a girl running

It’s no surprise that running made it on the list of best cardio exercises given that it’s probably one of the first exercises you think of when you hear the word “cardio”.  Running can be a great tool for weight loss, and if you’re able, you may try incorporating this exercise into your workout plan. 

It’s important to note that running may not be for everyone, however, as it can be considered a high impact exercise. Those that are prone to falling or are at risk of osteoporosis may want to discuss taking up running as a regular exercise with their doctor or fitness professional. 

Keep in mind as well that while cardio in general can lead to weight loss, nutrition is still an important factor. One study showed that running a distance of more than 5 kilometers along with dietary changes tailored to the individual lead to significantly more fat loss over time. 

Other research suggests that running may outperform walking when it comes to weight loss, and that individuals who ran had significantly lower BMI than walkers. 

Learn more about how you may benefit from using a CGM for running here.

2) Rowing 

Rowing, sometimes called crew, is another enjoyable cardio exercise. This one is a little unique in that it may not come to the front of your mind when you think of cardio. 

For those that are unfamiliar with the sport of crew, it’s a water sport done either individually or with a team of multiple people synchronously rowing a boat with oars. 

Indoor rowing on the other hand, can be done on a stationary rowing machine which is often found at the gym and mimics the motion of the boat that you’d typically do this exercise on. 

Studies show that indoor rowing can improve body composition and physical fitness, and can be beneficial for weight loss in those who identify as unfit or have poor body composition. Rowing may also be a safer, low-impact option for people with joint issues.

3) Biking 

someone riding a bike

Biking is an exercise that, like rowing, can be done either indoors or outdoors. You can hop on a stationary bike machine at your local gym, grab your own bike and hit a biking trail, or even rent a city bike and ride around your neighborhood. The options are endless!

If you’re strapped for time, biking is an easy and even convenient way to get some cardio in. For example, you could ride a bike to work instead of taking the car. 

One study found that individuals who biked to work lost significantly more fat than those who did not bike to work. It was also observed that individuals who did high intensity cycling lost the biggest amount of fat, making biking a great choice for weight loss. 

4) Swimming 

Who doesn’t love a dip in the pool? If you’ve read our post on swimming and metabolic health, you may already be familiar with swimming being a beneficial exercise to improve insulin sensitivity and metabolic health. 

In essence, research has shown that individuals who had markers of metabolic syndrome significantly improved these markers by engaging in swimming. The authors of that study found these individuals had better HDL, LDL, total cholesterol, triglycerides levels as well as reduced body fat after swimming regularly. 

Other research found that swimming, similarly to biking and rowing, can improve physical composition by boosting fat loss. In this study, those who engaged in an hour of swimming over a period of 12 weeks had significantly less body fat and also had significantly better physical fitness. 

5) Jumping Rope 

a girl jumping rope

This cardio exercise may take you back to your childhood days where jump roping on the pavement was a daily activity. 

But jumping rope is very much an effective way to lose weight, especially as an adult. This activity builds endurance, both physically and mentally, in addition to being fun and entertaining. 

One study found that dance music jump rope not only led to significantly lowered BMIs, but it also improved pulmonary function in overweight individuals. This is especially important, as obesity can compress the diaphragm and chest cavity, decreasing pulmonary health. 

So, if other cardio options aren’t your forte, jump roping can be a fun place to start.

6) Kickboxing 

Kickboxing is a cardio exercise that trains your mind as much as it trains your body. Research shows that kickboxers, both amateur and professional, have higher mental resilience, self-confidence, optimism, and motivation. 

Along with these psychological benefits, kickboxers at all fitness levels have more developed muscle mass and less than fat. One study echoed these benefits by illustrating that kick boxing leads to significantly higher upper body muscle mass and physical fitness (shown through improved agility, speed, and flexibility). 

If you’re looking to improve your overall fitness in your weight loss journey, try attending a kickboxing class or start one-on-one sessions with a kickboxing trainer!

7) Squats 

Whether you’re active in the fitness world or not, you’ve most likely heard of squats before. Squats have a variety of fitness benefits, and some research suggests that this movement may improve body composition, strength, and fitness of the lower body in some individuals. 

It’s interesting to note that this study found these benefits in just bodyweight squatting, meaning that even if you can’t yet add weights to your routine, you can still reap these health benefits and produce positive outcomes for your overall fitness.. 

8) Kettlebell Swings 

Kettlebells, a type of free weight, can be used in a variety of ways for lots of different exercises. One of the most popular kettlebell movements is the kettlebell swing, which involves holding the weight with both hands and hinging your hips back and forth in a swinging motion.

Research shows that kettlebell training is more than just an effective exercise to lose weight — it has a host of unique health benefits. 

These benefits range from increasing physical fitness to improving metabolic syndrome in women, and can even function as an early treatment for osteoporosis and preventing falls due to old age. So, try including the kettlebell swing in your next lower or full body workout!

9) Pushups 

a woman doing pushups

Pushups are a classic bodyweight exercise as they help build upper body strength and work the upper body muscles. Building strength through these types of movements is great for improved physical fitness and for better metabolic health

Pushups are easily incorporated into any routine and require no extra equipment. You can even try adding a few sets of push ups onto the end of your cardio workout for a quick finisher to top off your run or bike ride.

10) Lunges

Lunges are another kind of exercise that can be done both with bodyweight or with added weights. This type of exercise also helps build muscle mass with a focus on the lower body (think glute muscles and the biceps femoris in your legs).

So if you’re new to working out, try bodyweight lunges and squats to target the lower body before moving onto added weights. 

11) Deadlifts 

a man doing a deadlift

Deadlifts are known to be very effective at building muscle, as they work a variety of different muscle groups across the lower body and back depending on which type of deadlift you do. These can be done with free weights or with a barbell and require good form to avoid hurting your lower back. 

The deadlift is sometimes considered a more advanced exercise, so talk to your physical trainer about how to keep good form and make sure you’re comfortable adding weights before trying out this movement. 

12) Compound Exercises

Compound exercises refer to movements that target multiple muscle groups within the same exercise. All the exercises mentioned above are examples of compound exercises, as they work more than one muscle group while you move. 

For example, the classic squat movement can work your hamstrings, quads, glutes, core, and even the calves all in one motion. On the other hand, isolation exercises such as the bicep curl work one singular muscle at a time. 

Including a handful of compound exercises in addition to isolation movements to your strength training routine can help you more efficiently target every muscle group in your body, so try incorporating a few (or all of the above) into your workouts for weight loss. 

Cardio Exercises vs. Strength Training

Cardio is an umbrella term that can encompass many different types of exercise. If you’ve scoured the internet for weight loss advice, you’ll have heard time and time again to do more cardio to burn calories (also called aerobic exercise). But is this really effective? The short answer is that, yes, burning calories through cardio exercise can be a great form of exercise for losing weight. 

One study done in over 100 individuals who were classified as obese and overweight showed that cardio results in significant weight loss. Interestingly, these individuals lost weight despite the fact that they did not restrict their calories. 

Apart from cardio exercise, strength training is an essential component of a successful weight loss strategy. Strength training, as the name implies, involves using weights to build strength, and thereby increasing muscle mass. While this may sound counterintuitive for someone looking to lose weight, muscle mass typically burns more calories than fat at rest. 

However, strength training doesn’t necessarily need to include free weights, dumbbells, or kettlebells – you can even use your own body weight to build muscle. In fact, using your body weight may be more helpful if you’re new to weight training, as your body may not be used to the challenge of added weight. 

How Much Exercise is Required for Weight Loss? 

someone bendin over after exercise

A good frequency to start with is working out 3 days a week according to research. Taking rest days or doing NEAT exercises on your days off can be especially helpful if you’re doing full body workouts, as you’ll want a day or two in between exercises to recover properly. 

If you focus on specific muscle groups during each workout, you may be able to increase the number of days you train, but make sure not to work out the same muscle groups too often as this may increase your risk of muscle damage or injury

Lastly, you’ll want to balance the types of workouts you do, as both cardio and weight training have been observed to have significant effects on weight loss and overall health when done together. 

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Katie Kissane, MS, RD

Reviewed by: Katie Kissane, MS, RD

Katie is a dietitian at Nutrisense. With over 11 years of experience as a dietitian in many areas of nutrition, Katie has worked as a clinical dietitian within a hospital, as well as in the fields of diabetes, sports and performance nutrition, recovery from addiction, and general wellness. She’s also an athlete and has run 8 marathons, including the Boston Marathon.

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