What is the best type of exercise for weight loss and fat loss?


If you are embarking on a weight and fat loss journey and want long-term success, you may be considering what exercise can help you reach you best reach your goals. This article covers the pros and cons of different exercise types and intensities in the context of weight and fat loss, so that you can make a better-informed decision about what exercise may be most beneficial for you!

Cardiovascular exercise (Cardio)

Benefits of cardio exercise include: improved circulation, better heart health, stronger muscles, reduced stress, more energy, as well as reduced body fat. In addition to the health benefits of cardio, it can potentially contribute to that energy deficit required for weight loss – reducing the need to solely rely upon energy restriction from food and drink.

Low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio

During LISS cardio you may reach 40-60% of your maximum heart rate and is conducted at the same pace. LISS uses the aerobic energy system, meaning that it takes place in the presence of oxygen. Whilst low intensity cardio preferentially utilises fat for fuel, this does not equate to necessarily losing more body fat compared to other more intense forms of exercise that deplete glycogen (carbohydrate) stores!

Examples of LISS include: walking, jogging, swimming and cycling.


Reduced body weight: Research indicates that walking 30 minutes daily may contribute to weight loss (Brill et al. 2002).

Increased exercise compliance: LISS may be perceived as “easier” and be more sustainable – it therefore may be better complied with and adhered to in the long term, beneficial for sustaining healthy weight loss.

More accessible: LISS activities such as walking are likely suitable for most body weights and sizes and therefore there are reduced barriers to being able to engage in it.

Lower risk of injury: If you either have not exercised for a while, then choosing a form of LISS may help you reduce risk of sore muscles and injury. This could potentially further impair your ability to engage in exercise.


Lower energy output per unit of energy: LISS may be less energetically demanding, depending upon the intensity of the session.

Caloric expenditure is from session itself: You only get the caloric burn from the session itself – no additional calories are expended after the session.

Time consuming: Whilst walking may be enjoyable for many of us, including longer walks may not always be possible within a tight time schedule. This may act as a deterrent to exercising.

High intensity training (HIIT) cardio

HIIT training consists of repeated short bursts of maximal intensity exercise followed by slower intervals. During the high intensity intervals, you may work at >80% of your maximum heart rate. This means that you are mainly using the anaerobic energy system, since the demand for energy is greater than the supply of oxygen. Since your heart, lungs and muscles are all working at a high intensity, as a result, you may feel temporarily breathless and tired following a high intensity training session.

HIIT cardio can be performed in various ways – 30-45 second sprints on a treadmill interspersed with slower jogs, or similar but completed on a stationary/spin bike, rower etc. Bodyweight exercises such as burpees, tuck jumps and mountain climbers are also popular choices for HIIT cardio.


Time efficient: You can potentially expend as much energy as you would during lower/medium intensity cardio in a shorter time. This can be handy for a busy schedule, to help meet your calorie targets.

Reduced bodyweight: It may be more effective than low/medium intensity cardio at reducing body weight and body fat levels (Clark 2015).

Reducing body fat: HIIT may have a greater impact on body composition and be especially beneficial for reducing body fat versus other types of exercise (Boutcher 2011), potentially due to the mixture of aerobic and anaerobic systems that are used.

Increase in metabolic rate: HIIT is more demanding, using the anaerobic system as well as the aerobic system. This can increase your metabolic rate for a short period of time post exercise (Borsheim et al. 2003) – this is known as post-exercise oxygen consumption

Beneficial for lean muscle mass: Too high a volume of cardio exercise can interfere with lean muscle mass, however because of the nature of HIIT, the risk of interference with muscle mass appears to be reduced (Balabinis et al. 2003).

Beneficial for overall health: HIIT cardio may be more effective than LISS for reducing levels of insulin, blood fat levels and inflammatory markers (Clark et al. 2015).

Better for cardiorespiratory fitness: If you’re after improving your fitness on your weight loss journey then including some HIIT may be superior (Weston et al. 2014).


May result in greater “compensation”: Some individuals may want to compensate more following HIIT sessions and that they have earnt either less movement time or an extra slice of chocolate cake – this may be detrimental to weight loss goals if these compensatory thoughts are actioned.

Perceived exertion is higher: Because HIIT is very taxing and done at near maximal intensities, it does require a high level of exertion. For some individuals this can be perceived negatively and may be offputting. For some entry level individuals, you may want to build up base fitness levels before attempting higher intensity work.

High impact: HIIT training can include lots of high impact body movements such as burpees and sprints. Depending on the volume of HIIT along with previous levels of training, this may create joint strain and muscle soreness, particularly if there are muscle imbalances already present.

Larger injury risk: Depending on the modality of HIIT and the degree of impact, the risk of injury may be greater.

Greater need for recovery: HIIT training can be demanding on both the muscles and the nervous system. This can demand a greater need for recovery.

HIIT or LISS for fat loss?

Ultimately it will depend upon which you can better adhere to in the long term and therefore what works for you best. Be aware that the after-effect calorie burn from HIIT may be less than you imagine, with some research indicating that following 80 minutes of HIIT, the post exercise oxygen consumption that took place 7 hours post exercise only accounted for 80 calories (LaForgia et al. 2006). A review of multiple studies concluded that the calorie burn post HIIT sessions may not in fact account for any greater fat loss (Keating et al. 2017).

HIIT may be handier in terms of fitting it into your schedule and that post exercise high experienced! However, if you actually hate HIIT, then opt for LISS! If you’re up for it, try to include a mixture!

Resistance training

Resistance training is most often thought of in the form of lifting weights, however, it could be any exercise where you pull or lift against resistance – so it could use bodyweight, resistance bands, kettle bells or dumbbells. You perform an exercise for a specific number of repetitions and over time, when repeated appropriately and consistently, it results in increased muscular strength and potentially size.

Reduced body weight: Reviews of multiple studies show resistance training to be more effective for reducing body weight and body fat levels than cardiovascular exercise (Clark 2015).

Improved body composition: Resistance training is significantly more effective than cardio for increasing fat-free mass (Clark et al. 2015).

Improved bone density: resistance training may be associated with increased bone density.

Increased insulin sensitivity: Resistance exercise promotes the uptake of sugar into the cells, beneficial for overall health and anyone who wants to prevent or reverse type 2 diabetes (Di Meo et al. 2017).

Increasing metabolic rate: Increasing lean muscle mass is one of the greatest ways that metabolic rate can be increased. Muscle has a higher energetic cost than fat and therefore at a higher proportion of body weight as muscle versus fat, if everything else is matched, is likely to result in a higher metabolic rate.

What would the ideal exercise prescription for weight loss and fat loss look like?

The combination of resistance and cardio exercise may be optimal for weight and fat loss – especially in the long term (Clark 2015). Shoot for 2-3 sessions of each per week initially! Importantly the ideal prescription of exercise for weight loss is what you can adhere to in the long-term.

Top tips for adhering to your exercise

1. Choose exercise that you enjoy

There is a type of exercise for everyone to enjoy. Begin with choosing something that you enjoy and even if you do not love the activity itself, think about what you are gaining from the activity that you love – for example, a stronger heart, leaner muscles, a healthy mind.

2. Get your gear out the night before

So that everything is ready to go and there are no barriers, set strong intentions.

3. Schedule it in

Choose when is best for you and put it in your diary like a work meeting. You can’t miss work meetings and the same applies with your exercise! When you schedule it in, be realistic with how much exercise you can achieve to begin with.

4. Don’t rely on motivation

Motivation is overrated and is a feeling. Feelings come and go but exercise needs to be consistent – just like your diet. Accept that you may not always feel motivated and that’s okay, sometimes you just have to grind out sessions.

5. Go steady

There isn’t much point, and it may actually be detrimental to your weight loss goals if you start exercising quite a lot and then feel like you’ve overdone it, are too sore or injury yourself and end up stopping. Remember this weight loss journey is a marathon, not a sprint, so it’s about putting in the miles.


Small, Smart Choices, Consistently Repeated = Results


6. Be accountable

Share your exercise plan with someone who is supporting you on your weight loss journey – your best friend, partner, nutritionist etc. Having someone you can be accountable is a crucial component of any successful weight loss plan!

7. Focus on how you feel after exercising

It is very rare to have ever regretted doing exercise. Focus on how you will feel after you have finished exercise, the sense of achievement, increase in endorphins etc.

8. Make it sociable

For many people, exercising in a group situation, find a training partner or employ a PT to further support you and add a social element to the session. Obviously if that’s not for you, then feel free to go alone too!

9. Review your exercise schedule

Build in opportunities to review your exercise every 4 weeks or so with whoever is helping you with accountability – for example, you can sit down with your nutritionists/health coach/PT and evaluate what is working for you, your lifestyle, preferences, weight loss goals etc. It’s all about creating a life and health plan that you love and works for you which requires gaining some feedback from these events before being able to objectively determine how well they work for you.

10. Adapt your plan – don’t stop

If you are really struggling with your exercise plan, then schedule in an appointment with your nutritionist/health coach, or phone that friend – talk it through. Are you struggling with it because you’re generally struggling and experiencing stress, or is it because you’ve had 3 months of doing the same exercise routine. Just like it is important to have variety with the food that you eat, variety with exercise is also key! Sometimes it is just about changing something up to take a break, other times it’s about progressing onto something completely different. Progressive overload is crucial for progression with training and results, this means steadily making what you do more challenging.

Key take aways:

For weight and fat loss prioritise creating a calorie deficit from your diet: with a personalised nutrition plan that suits you and your preferences. Creating a meaningful calorie deficit can be most readily achieved through nutrition.

Choose exercise that you can most readily adhere to: for long term weight loss success and maintenance, consistently adhering to your exercise is the most important factor.

Include some form of resistance exercise: for long term weight loss maintenance and fat loss. Lean muscle is key for increasing your calorie burn at rest so that you can be expending calories whilst you are not exercising! Additionally, including resistance exercise will help you to retain lean muscle mass and prioritise losing fat on your weight loss journey.

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  1. Clark (2015). Diet, exercise or diet with exercise: comparing the effectiveness of treatment options for weight loss and changes in fitness for adults (18-65 years old) who are overfat, or obese: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
  2. Boutcher (2011). High-intensity exercise and fat loss.
  3. Borsheim et al. (2003). Effect of exercise intensity, duration and mode on post-exercise oxygen consumption.
  4. Balabinis et al. (2003). Early phase changes by concurrent endurance and strength training.
  5. Weston et al. (2014). Effects of low-volume high-intensity interval training (HIT) on fitness in adults: a meta-analysis of controlled and non-controlled trials.
  6. Di Meo et al. (2017). Improvement of obesity-linked skeletal muscle insulin resistance by strength and endurance.
  7. Ho et al. (2012). The effect of 12 weeks of aerobic, resistance or combination exercise training on cardiovascular risk factors in the overweight and obese in a randomised trial.
  8. Brill et al. (2002). Dose-response effect of walking exercise on weight loss. How much is enough?
  9. LaForgia et al. (2006). Effects of exercise intensity and duration on the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.
  10. Keating et al. (2017). A systematic review and meta-analysis versus moderate intensity continuous training on body adiposity.