These days, when people want to get fit and lose fat the first big idea they usually encounter is the Calories in/Calories out model. This is the very simple idea that in order for your body to lose fat it must be in an energy deficit. The logic runs like this: if you use more energy in your daily activity than the energy you consume through food then your body will have to use energy already stored as fat to make up the difference. It’s kind of like spending your savings at Christmas time. Your expenses (energy used) are greater than your income (energy consumed) so you have to spend some of your savings (stored fat).
While this idea is true on a very basic level it doesn’t account for a lot of the detail and complexity in how the human body functions. Different foods affect metabolism (how your body’s cells obtain and use energy) in vastly different ways. Similarly, various types of activity have very diverse effects on how your body uses energy. How different forms of exercise affect body composition in terms of fat and lean muscle also varies greatly.
This is not going to be a complete guide to all the different effects of every type of exercise, you would need at least a book to do that! However, it will give you a good idea of which types of exercise are the best match for your lifestyle and your goals, whether those are getting fit, getting strong or getting lean.
Aerobic exercise is the form of exercise that relies on the aerobic energy-generating process. All this means is that oxygen (from breathing) is needed to provide energy for aerobic exercise. Because of this aerobic exercise can be sustained for extended periods of time. The most common examples of aerobic exercise are those traditionally associated with fitness training: running, cycling, swimming, elliptical trainers, stairmasters and jumping rope. All of these modes of exercise are compared using a standard measure of how many Calories they burn per hour.
According to this measure, these activities have the following caloric expenditures:
|Activity||Calories/hour for a 180lb person|
|Running||1022 (8 minute mile pace)|
However, these figures are slightly misleading. Even though they are controlled so that the caloric expenditures shown are all for moderate efforts, there’s more to the story. The calorie expenditures are all calculated per hour of activity. This means that all the activities are compared on a level playing field but also makes it look like some activities are more Calorie-intensive than they are in practice.
For example, maintaining an 8-minute mile pace for a whole hour is a serious challenge for a novice runner, while cycling at a moderate pace for 60 minutes is pretty achievable. Because of this, it’s easy to get the wrong idea about what type of aerobic exercise is the best for shedding fat. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that comparing exercises based on their Calories/hour requirements is more confusing than beneficial but the popularity of these measures persists.
The preceding forms of exercise are commonly known as “steady state cardio” because they involve staying at a given level of exertion for a sustained period of time without accelerating or slowing down to rest. There is growing support for the idea that “steady state cardio” might not be an optimal way of reducing fat, getting fitter or really achieving anything other than doing steady state cardio itself. The biggest challenge to the “steady state” paradigm comes from a broad family of exercise known as High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT. Involving a diverse range of exercises and programmes, HIIT is characterised by a combination of very high effort for short periods combined with rest.
HIIT increases athletic performance, improves glucose metabolism and increases fat burning. In short, HIIT is so effective not just because of the intensity of the exercise itself, but because of the effect it has on your metabolism for hours (even days) afterwards. While metabolization of stored fat stops as soon as you take off your running shoes or cycling helmet, your metabolism remains elevated for much longer after an HIIT session. This is because HIIT depletes your immediate energy sources so, with correct post workout nutrition, stored fat must be used to assist the recovery process.
However, these benefits refer to the effects on trained individuals. HIIT is less effective at improving body composition of overweight people. Also, be warned: in order for HIIT to be effective a significant amount of motivation and willpower is required. One way to stay motivated is to train in a group. I train with a Modified Strongman group once a week. We keep each other motivated with encouragement and competition and the intensity of the intervals leaves me feeling like I have three lungs instead of two for days afterwards!
If somebody wanted to use more petrol in a car, one way would achieve this would be by getting a bigger engine. Obviously, cars are completely different from human bodies but the analogy is still useful. If somebody wants to use more calories in order to lose weight and get lean one of the best ways is to increase their volume of metabolically active muscle tissue. Not only will they burn more calories around the clock (even while resting), they’ll look a lot better too.
Comparing resistance training to steady state cardio the final effects on body composition are well established. In one well-respected study overweight individuals were assigned to one of three groups: 1) Diet alone, 2) Diet and aerobic cardio and 3) Diet, aerobic cardio and weight training. The results were startling: over 12 weeks Group 1 lost 14.6 pounds of fat, Group 2 lost 15.6 pounds of fat while Group 3 lost 21.1 pounds of fat. Basically, aerobic cardio exercise made very little difference in fat loss compared to diet alone. However, resistance training had a huge effect on fat loss massively accelerating improvement in body composition when combined with diet.
The implication is clear: if you want to lose weight and get lean but you don’t have a huge amount of patience, you’d better head straight to the weight room. This doesn’t mean that weight training is going to suit everybody’s needs perfectly. Frequent intense weight training is very demanding so alternating with other kinds of exercise could be a good idea.
One of the most important things in all things health and fitness related is consistency. It doesn’t matter if you hit the gym like a maniac every January if you’re back on the couch by Valentine’s Day. Maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle over years, rather than weeks or months, is what’s really important.
From this perspective, the exercise that burns the most calories is the one you can stick at for the longest period of time: a lifetime playing badminton regularly will definitely burn more Calories than two or three months in even the most intense gym. Finding a form of exercise that you genuinely enjoy can be the most effective way of losing weight in the long run. Recent research supports this too. This study demonstrated that the more people enjoy an exercise regime and the more positive feelings they have while exercising the more likely they are to continue the programme and stay active.
If you’re trying to lose weight, set yourself up to win by trying lots of sports then sticking with one you actually enjoy! You’ll be more likely to persist and the benefits in the long run will be huge.
Asking a question like “Which Exercise Burns The Most Calories?” will almost always get an answer like “It depends . . .” or “It’s more complicated than that . . .”. In exercise selection, there are always more factors than the Caloric requirement to consider. Metabolic effects, initial fitness levels, personal motivation and preferences all play a big part in distinguishing which exercises are right for you and your goals.
If you’re like most people and you want to get a bit leaner and a bit fitter, but haven’t got all day to do it, how best to exercising should now be a little clearer. Resistance training should form the backbone of your programme – if you can only do one activity it should be resistance training. Supplementing that with High-Intensity Interval Training, or playing a sport that you enjoy or doing aerobic exercise like running or swimming is a good way to support fat loss.
Of course, there are benefits other than the metabolic effects to every type of exercise; jumping rope improves coordination, swimming is a skill that could save your life and low-intensity aerobic exercise improves mood. But when it comes down to the metabolic effects steady state aerobics just don’t compare with resistance training and HIIT!
Any other ideas on how to burn calories faster? Let me know with a comment below.