How Much Exercise Is Needed To Lose Weight?

If you’re starting an exercise plan with the aim of losing weight, there are a few things to keep in mind.  Most doctors recommend weight loss programs to include a combination of a healthy diet and moderate exercise.  But if you are looking to lose weight by exercise alone, several factors come into play.

These factors include:

  • Age 

  • General health condition

  • Weight

  • Physical activity level

  • Exercise intensity.

It is always best to speak with your physician before starting any exercise program.

How often should you exercise to lose weight?

If you are exercising to lose weight, the most important thing to remember is consistency. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults should do at least 150 to 300 minutes a week¹ of moderate-intensity exercise.  Five days per week would equate to one half to one hour per day.  If exercising at a vigorous intensity, you can get the same results in less time.

Use caution when beginning an exercise program, to make sure you do not overdo it and thereby increase the risk of injury.

Exercising every day is great, but sometimes life gets in the way! Your schedule changes, work, or family obligations come up.  So try to develop a flexible plan and begin slowly, at a pace that is comfortable for you.  Marking time for physical activity in your daily calendar is one way to make sure you’re prioritizing exercise.

Another way to stay motivated is to recruit a workout buddy.  Accountability may help keep you moving. Be sure that your buddy has similar goals and fitness levels, so you both stay motivated.

How long should you work out to maximize weight loss?

Exercising to lose weight really comes down to doing the math.  Your body requires a calorie deficit of 3500 to lose a pound.  Assuming your diet remains the same, to lose one pound per week, working out five times each week, you would need to burn 700 calories per workout.  The calories burned will depend on the intensity of your exercise, ranging from moderate to vigorous.

To determine the intensity of your workout, check your heart rate². If you are working at 50-60% of your maximum, then you are working at a moderate pace.  Vigorous exercise would be 70-85% of your maximum.

Some examples of exercise and the average calorie expenditure³ per hour for a 150-pound person:

Moderate exercise:

  • Walking at a pace of 3.5 mph, 280 calories

  • Bicycling less than 10 mph, 290 calories

  • Golfing, 330 calories

  • Dancing, 330 calories.

Vigorous exercise:

Using these calorie estimates given by the CDC, in order to lose one pound per week with no change in diet and exercising five times per week, you would need to run or jog an hour and ten minutes. If you run faster, you will burn more calories.  If you weigh more, you will burn more calories.

Another way to create a calorie deficit is to consume fewer calories.  If you consume 3-400 calories less per day (about the same as a small milkshake or a frothy coffee drink), you will reach that deficit by dancing at moderate intensity for an hour or simply walking for an hour.

There is no hard and fast rule on how much exercise you should be getting in order to lose weight.  However, it is clear that the longer you work out or the higher the intensity level is, the more calories you will burn.  Most experts recommend starting slowly and working up to a longer, more intense workout.

To avoid injury, do not overdo your exercise in the beginning, but rather work into a longer, stronger routine as you become more comfortable.  Starting out with five 30-minute workouts of moderate intensity is recommended by the CDC⁴ and the American College of Sports Medicine⁵.  Work your way up to the 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise as recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services¹, or increase your intensity to get the results you want.

Tips to create a workout routine to help you lose weight

There are a number of things you can do to create a workout routine to help you achieve your weight loss goals.  Keep in mind that exercise routines fail either because of injury or boredom.  Follow these tips to avoid both:

Make it a date!

Just like you would schedule appointments, block out time on your daily schedule and make it a priority.  It is best if you can do it at the same time every day so that it becomes a habit.  Perhaps you can set a time first thing in the morning, or immediately after work.

Do something you enjoy

If you like the outdoors, take up hiking or walking around your neighborhood.  Or, if something competitive is more your style, opt for racketball or basketball.  If you like time alone, grab your earbuds and head to the treadmill.  Aerobic or spin classes are great if you prefer being in a group.  At the end of the day, it’s important that you choose a form of exercise that you enjoy.

Call a friend

Someone you know may want to join in your activity, and it's a great way to stay motivated.  Walk with a neighbor.  Join a team.  Sign up for classes.  You may end up being someone else's motivation to keep pushing!

Start out slow

If you are a beginner, start out with baby steps.  If your goal is 30 minutes per day, start with ten.  Increase time and intensity as you become more accustomed to your routine.  Starting out too fast or going for too long can result in injury, which will inevitably derail your exercise plans.

Mix it up

It can be boring walking the same path every day or doing the same gym routine.  Change up the location, the activity, or the pace, so you stay interested and invested.

Stay safe

Working out safely is important.  That is another reason to work out with a friend or group.  If you fall or are injured, you don't want to be somewhere where you can't get help.  If running or walking after dark, wear reflective clothing and avoid dimly lit areas.  Be aware of your surroundings and don't let distractions such as your phone or music jeopardize your safety.

Use a tracker

It's a good idea to track your activity and be able to see the progress you have made.  Activity trackers are readily available, at a wide range of prices.  Work out journals also let you track elements besides your activity, such as how you were feeling and even your nutritional choices.

Be realistic

Break down your end goal into smaller goals.  If you want to lose 20 pounds, don't expect that to happen in one week.  Perhaps you can strive for a pound per week.  Don't think as a beginner, you can run five miles like your friend (who has been running for a long time).  With consistent exercise, you can work toward your goals.

Be forgiving

We all mess up.  If you missed a work-out or overindulged all weekend, all is not lost.  Forgive yourself and start again with your plan.

Pat yourself on the back!

Celebrate yourself and the completion of each small goal.  Reward yourself with time out to your favorite place, get a manicure, or buy your favorite jeans in a smaller size.  

The lowdown

In determining how much exercise is needed to lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit, by burning more calories than you consume.  It requires persistence, consistency, and a positive attitude.  If combined with a healthy diet, the rate of weight loss increases.  Choosing a physical activity you enjoy, doing it consistently, and slowly and safely increasing volume and intensity training will help you meet your goals.

  1. Physical activity guidelines for Americans 2nd edition | U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Target heart rate and estimated maximum heart rate | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  3. Physical activity for a healthy weight | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  4. How much physical activity do adults need? | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  5. Trending topic | Physical activity guidelines | American College of Sports Medicine

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