How Exercise Helps You Lose Weight

Written by Leslie Goldman, MPH | Published on November 4, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on November 4, 2014

Exercising for Weight Loss

When it comes to successful and lasting weight loss, eating well is only part of the battle. Physical activity will help inch you closer to your goal by both burning calories and building muscle. However, this isn’t the only reason to make exercise part of your day-to-day life. Exercise decreases stress, prevents disease, and simply makes you feel better.

How Much Is Enough?

You don’t need to join a fancy gym or buy pricey home equipment to build a good fitness program. Daily activities that count as physical activity include:

  • cleaning the house
  • walking to and from work
  • taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • gardening
  • shopping

To really burn calories, however, you’ll want to get your heart pumping and break a sweat.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends healthy adults net at least two hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, using the elliptical machine, or swimming. Alternately, you can net one hour and 15 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity like running or cycling. This should be spread throughout the week. For most people, an exercise plan will mean 30 to 60 minutes of cardio on most days. In addition, recommendations call for strength-training exercises at least twice a week.

Exercise Options

Your options are limitless. You can:

  • hike
  • bike
  • run
  • walk
  • swim
  • dance
  • skate
  • ski
  • play basketball
  • play volleyball
  • play soccer
  • play tennis

There are also aerobics programs, yoga studios, and karate dojos. When it comes to exercise, there’s something for everyone.

One excellent, widely available option is walking. Its low-impact nature means it’s gentle on joints, and it can be done anywhere. Walk around in your neighborhood, at the local mall, while on vacation, during your lunch break, and while waiting for your plane to board at the airport.

Walking can raise high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the "good" kind) and lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the "bad" kind). It can reduce blood pressure and your risk for type 2 diabetes as well as act as a natural mood elevator.

Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and weather-appropriate clothing with some reflective material so cars can see you at night. Start with five minutes of slow walking to warm up your muscles, concentrating on long strides to stretch your muscles. Once you are warmed up, you can pick up the pace. For the most benefits, walk at a pace that challenges you, while still allowing you to talk without feeling breathless. After you’ve finished your walk, cool down with a slower pace for five minutes, and stretch again.

If walking doesn’t interest you, there are numerous other options. Just make sure to start slowly. Beginning an exercise program too quickly is a recipe for injury and could set you up for failure. By building a solid fitness base, you’re more likely to make exercise a lifelong habit rather than a fleeting phase.

Benefits of Exercise

The benefits of regular exercise are many. Using fitness as a means to an end only works when you are willing to continue the habit. Making it a daily part of your life ensures you continue to reap the benefits for years to come.

It Helps You Manage Your Weight

The tried-and-true weight loss rule says you must burn more calories than you consume, and exercise helps you do this. The more you exercise, the less you will have to reduce your food intake. Instead of eliminating 500 calories from your day, you could cut just 250 calories (a bag of chips or a slice of coffee cake) and then work off the other 250 at the gym with 30 minutes on the elliptical machine.

In addition to cardiovascular exercise to burn calories, strength training can have weight-loss benefits. By increasing your muscle mass, you increase your calorie-burning metabolism. This means that by replacing fat with muscle, your body will burn more calories at rest. This is why you see more “muscle-y” people cheating on their diets and seeing no ill effects. Their bodies torch the calories at a much faster rate.

It Boosts Energy Levels

Regular physical activity oxygenates the blood and delivers nutrients to tissues, revving up the cardiovascular system and boosting circulation. That means your heart and lungs don’t need to work as hard to function. The result means more energy to propel you through your day.

Exercise also improves sleep quality. This will allow you to get a better night of rest and feel more ready to tackle the day.

It Improves Your Mood

Get rid of stress with a hardcore spinning class or a more relaxing mind-body yoga workout. Either way, you’re sure to feel calmer afterward. That’s because physical activity stimulates the release of feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins. These chemicals create the so-called “runner’s high.”

Using your muscles allows you to rid them of tension. Paired with the increased endorphins, you not only feel better, you can focus better and may even find yourself more optimistic.

Regular physical activity may forestall a depression. In addition to increasing confidence levels, Duke University Medical Center reported that a brisk 30-minute walk or jog three times a week could be just as effective in relieving the symptoms of major depression as antidepressant medication.

It Combats Chronic Disease

Regular workouts can help you manage or prevent numerous diseases and health problems including:

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • cancer
  • type 2 diabetes
  • obesity
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • other autoimmune diseases

By increasing activity levels, you actually increase the amount of blood circulated throughout the body and improve coronary artery flexibility, preventing the inadequate blood flow to the heart that causes heart attacks.

Again and again, studies have found that people who exercise regularly have decreased risks of various types of cancer, including colon and breast cancers.

It makes sense that lifestyle diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, caused by poor health choices, can be prevented through regular exercise. By working out on a regular basis and eating right, people can reduce the likelihood of obesity and those diseases related to being obese.

In general, people who exercise are healthier and experience illness less often. Research shows that exercise increases the number of white blood cells in the body. These are the cells that fight off invading illness. People who exercise are just less likely to contract colds and other common illnesses.

Exercise for Life

Keeping your body in good working condition is just one way to help ensure that you age gracefully, at a healthy weight and free from disease. For some people, daily fitness is a serious sacrifice that requires careful time management and dedication. When you make your fitness a priority, the benefits are truly worth every moment you spend on it. From weight loss to disease prevention, exercise is a natural and proven health elixir. 

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