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Popular Weight-Loss Workouts: What Does The Science Say?

Medically reviewed by Priti Parekh, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 8, 2023

There is no shortage of the benefits of exercising. Besides protecting you from diseases like cancer, heart disease, and stroke; building your muscles; improving your endurance; and reducing depression, exercise also helps you lose weight. 


While any type of exercise can promote weight loss, some types are more effective than others for this purpose. Should you start running or lifting weights? Swimming or cycling? There are so many kinds of exercise routines and different sports to choose from, each with its own unique strengths. Let’s explore a few different methods of exercise and find out, based on scientific evidence, which one is most helpful at burning fat.


High-intensity interval training (HIIT)


HIIT is a type of exercise routine made up of short, intense bursts of exercise and minimal periods of recovery. An HIIT workout lasts from 10 to 30 minutes in total, and can be modified to include almost any kind of exercise, be it weight training, biking, or sprinting. Studies show that from a cardiovascular perspective, HIIT is just as effective as conventional workout routines, if not more. HIIT does take a back seat when it comes to muscle building (weight lifting is still superior) but it can still help you gain some degree of muscle mass. In short, HIIT is a completely legitimate form of exercise in every respect.


Does HIIT work for weight loss? Yes. A range of studies has been done on HIIT proving its effectiveness. HIIT is particularly good at improving cardiovascular function, but also at helping burn fat. A 2017 review found that HIIT was comparable to moderate-intensity exercise in promoting weight loss, giving you the same benefits in a shorter amount of time. Another study involving obese women found that 12 weeks of HIIT led to a 10% reduction in the participants’ body fat. For weight loss, HIIT is one of the best workouts around, and all you need is half an hour of your time–or less.


Weight training


When you think of weight training, you might be thinking of a muscular bodybuilder lifting massive plates of iron. But that mental image isn’t necessarily an accurate depiction of weight training. In fact, you can build lots of toned, lean muscle just by lifting light weights or doing bodyweight exercises like pull-ups or push-ups. But if losing weight is your goal, should you be pumping iron or going for a run?


Does weight training work for weight loss? Yes, but it’s best if combined with cardio. Weight training on its own doesn’t burn as many calories as jogging or cycling. For example, a 154-pound man who lifts weights for 1 hour burns 220 calories, but the same man who goes on an hour-long hike will burn 370 calories. However, studies have been done showing that a combination of weight training and cardiovascular exercise is significantly more effective at burning fat than weight training or cardio alone. 


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Obesity - Exercise

Obesity - Exercise



Boxing can be a brutal sport if you watch it on TV, but knocking around a punching bag is great exercise and doesn’t require you to fight until you or your opponent lose consciousness. Since boxing is a fast-paced, vigorous sport, it’s considered a type of HIIT and elicits the same benefits.


Does boxing work for weight loss? Yes. After all, boxing is a type of HIIT. But compared to traditional weight-loss exercises like walking or running, boxing may be even better at burning fat. A 2015 study found that obese individuals that took part in 4 boxing sessions per week for a total of 12 weeks had “significantly improved body fat percentage” compared to obese individuals who engaged in 4 sessons per week of moderate-intensity brisk walking over the same period of time. 




We all know what running is. You can do it at the park, around the block, or on a treadmill. Running strengthens your heart and your legs, and some say it even gives you a “runner’s high.” It’s also a great group activity, and if you don’t mind getting up early on a Saturday morning, it can give you a boost for the rest of the day.


Does running work for weight loss? Yes. Self-explanatory, right? Exerting yourself for a long period of time is bound to burn fat. But how much more effective is it than walking? Significantly more. A 160-pound man who walks for an hour will burn only 314 calories, but a man of the same weight who runs for an hour would burn 606 calories — nearly double. Running is one of the most popular workouts for losing weight, and now you can see why.



Cycling is another popular sport that improves your cardiovascular health, builds up your leg muscles and, if you regularly cycle instead of drive, helps save the planet. There are a few different kinds of cycling–mountain biking, road biking and stationary biking–but all of them are good for your heart, legs, and lungs.


Does cycling work for weight loss? Yes. Cycling is on par with running when it comes to burning calories. As mentioned above, an hour of running burns 606 calories, and an hour of cycling burns about the same amount, give or take. The speed at which you cycle plays a role, but as long as you’re feeling the burn, you can be confident that the pounds are dropping off.




Yoga is the ancient Indian practice of calming your mind and relaxing your body. It has numerous health benefits: promoting flexibility, toning muscles, improving cardiovascular health, and boosting energy. And although yoga isn’t usually physically demanding, it can also help you control your weight.


Does yoga work for weight loss? Yes. A 2013 review of multiple clinical trials concluded that yoga is an effective way to prevent obesity and promote weight loss. Another study published in 2018 found that obese women who practiced yoga for 12 weeks had significantly smaller waistlines, reduced BMIs, and lower cholesterol levels at the end of the trial period. Other studies have found similar results. Surprisingly, even though yoga is mostly composed of slow, deliberate movements, it can actually burn a good amount of calories.


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Benefits of Yoga

Benefits of Yoga



While there’s nothing like relaxing in the pool with a cold drink, you’ll need to get active if you actually want to reap the benefits of swimming. Swimming is great for your heart and your muscles, and it helps build endurance. Not everyone has access to a swimming pool, so it’s not the most convenient sport, but if you can find a place to practice, swimming can be very rewarding.


Does swimming work for weight loss? Yes. As long as you’re putting effort into your laps, you’ll burn quite a few calories. Even doing slow laps across the pool for an hour burns 510 calories (for a 154-pound man). A 2010 study even found that swimming was more effective at burning fat than walking, when both were performed at the same level of intensity.  If you want to lose weight and you know someone with a pool, give swimming a try.



Which weight-loss workout is right for me?


This is a question that doesn’t have a simple answer. All of the workouts detailed above can help you lose weight, provided you’re doing them regularly and keeping your diet in check. But let’s assume you’re new to exercising and don’t know much about fitness. If that’s the case, try a combination of light running and weight training to start out with, after making sure your doctor is in agreement. You shouldn’t exert yourself too much in the beginning, but you’ll want to work up a sweat. 


Once you’ve gotten used to the feel of a workout routine, you can attempt some more advanced methods, like HIIT. But no matter what type of exercise you choose, it’s important to stay hydrated and keep your post-workout meal modest. Within only a few weeks, you should see results.


Written by Natan Rosenfeld

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