What is exercise and what role does it play in weight loss?

Exercise is any planned, structured and repetitive activity that works your body at a greater intensity than your usual level of daily movement. Examples include team sports, jogging, running or dancing – these activities raise your heart rate, work your muscles and help to improve and maintain your physical fitness.


Sadly, studies suggest that those looking to lose weight using exercise alone tend to enjoy only a modest weight loss of up to 2kg. In order to lose more, you’ll need to clock up double the recommended number of minutes, and preferably combine higher activity levels with a calorie-restricted eating plan. Where exercise does play a significant role, however, is in preventing any weight lost from being regained; it also improves heart health and physical fitness.

It’s worth remembering that your goal when losing weight is actually to change your body composition, ie maintaining and promoting muscle mass while reducing body fat. Unfortunately, the number you see on the scales doesn’t give you this fuller picture.

Discover our full range of health benefit guides including how to exercise for free and our weight-loss recipes.

Woman doing strength training

Do I have to exercise to lose weight?

The answer is no, at least not initially, but if you want to keep the weight off and prevent the accelerated loss of muscle and bone mass that’s associated with losing weight, then exercise is a key component of your weight loss and maintenance strategy.

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Done regularly, exercise increases muscle mass and teaches your body to burn more calories, even at rest, making you less likely to regain the weight you’ve lost. This makes physical activity, including exercise, key to successful weight management for the longer term.

What is the best exercise for weight loss?

There’s no one best exercise for weight loss; a variety of structured exercise and keeping physically active during the day are likely to achieve the best results. Here are the types of exercise you might wish to consider:


Increasing your aerobic activity on a regular basis increases the number of calories you burn and may help with your weight loss goals – especially shifting belly fat. Aerobic exercise improves endurance, breathing and heart rate and as such benefits the heart, lungs and circulation.

Examples include brisk walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, tennis and cycling.

Resistance or strength training

Often referred to as weight lifting, this form of exercise helps preserve and develop muscle and makes them stronger. You don’t need to lift weights in a gym if that’s not your thing, simply using your own body weight – doing a push up, for example – or using a resistance band will achieve a similar effect.

One of the main advantages of strength training is it promotes healthy muscle and because muscle is metabolically active, the more muscle you have the more calories you’ll burn, even at rest. Preserving and building muscle while losing body fat helps prevent your metabolism from slowing down.

Studies suggest that combining both cardio and strength training in your weight loss plan may be the most effective means of improving your physical fitness and trimming your waist line.

High intensity interval training (HIIT)

This much talked about and popular form of exercise involves cycles of short bursts of intense exercise followed by a brief rest, and combines cardio and resistance training. Typically taking 10-20 minutes to complete, this intense activity can be helpful for initiating body composition changes. However, if you have a heart condition or any health concerns, speak to your GP before you start.

What’s the best exercise plan for weight loss?

In order to remain healthy, we should all aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week plus two resistance training sessions. Resistance training is especially helpful because it preserves muscle mass – combining it with HIIT can help if you’re short of time. This weekly goal can be broken down into shorter daily durations of 20-30 minutes per day.

If you’re looking to achieve a reduction in your weight, however, you’ll need a greater time commitment with studies suggesting 225-420 minutes per week, reducing to 200-300 minutes per week to simply keep the weight off. Aim to break this down into shorter durations, evenly spaced over the week, and be sure to combine aerobic activity with at least two sessions of resistance training.

A couple after exercising outside

Can everyone exercise safely?

If you’re new to exercise, speak with your GP or healthcare practitioner to ensure the exercise you propose is appropriate for you. This is especially relevant if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, an existing muscle injury, arthritis or joint issues; or if you’re on prescribed medication or are pregnant.

When you start exercising, start slowly, allowing time to warm up and cool down with a gentle walk or stretching exercises before and after each session. During your workout, aim for a pace you can continue without getting overly tired; as your stamina and strength improves increase the amount of time and intensity.

Last words

The most effective way to lose weight and keep it off is to a combine a balanced, calorie-restricted diet, varied exercise and behavioural change – all three of these need to be sustained for the long term.

Guidelines recommend that to stay healthy we should do 150 minutes of moderate activity plus two strength training classes, involving all major muscle groups, each week. However, if your goal is to lose weight or to maintain the weight you’ve lost, studies suggest that higher levels of activity are associated with better long-term outcomes.

For sustainable weight management combine your exercise regime with a balanced, healthy diet comprising minimally processed foods and healthy fats, lean protein and slow-releasing carbs.

If you’re new to exercise, speak to your GP before starting an exercise program to ensure your chosen activity is appropriate for you.

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