When you’re trying to lose weight, exercise is an important part of the equation. Though most experts agree working out on its own isn’t usually enough to lose weight, there are plenty of reasons to include it in your weight-loss plan.
Most people who’ve been successful in their weight-loss goals can tell you it took some trial and error to nail down the workout strategy that benefitted them the most. Here, trainers and people who’ve lost weight themselves explain the surprising shifts they made in their exercise routines that turned out to make all the difference — many of them strikingly small.
As a certified Pilates instructor, Cassandra Cotta, creator of Pilates People, is no stranger to body transformation. “I’ve personally lost weight when I stopped focusing on exercise being about losing weight,” explains Cotta. She’s seen this effect with clients, too. “The moment I focused on finding something I enjoy doing (Pilates, yoga, running) and found a rhythm that works for me — without feeling the pressure of ‘You must do it this way, at this time, for this long … or else’ — things started shifting in my body.”
“I had a client that signed up with me about a year ago, and her goal was to lose 30 pounds,” says Alex Smith, a certified trainer. His client saw decent progress with cardio workouts but when Smith decided to incorporate a day of superset training into her routine, they both noticed she started progressing faster toward her goal. It makes sense because superset-style training is one of the best options for people who want to lose fat since your heart rate is elevated both during and after the workout. “This tweak propelled her to lose 30 pounds, and she loved those workouts more than cardio,” says Smith. So, he helped her create a workout program that included more supersets, and she still sticks to that program today.
High-intensity interval training has its benefits for sure. But many experts recommend prioritizing heavy strength training over HIIT or other forms of cardio, which may be a surprise given HIIT’s popularity.
“Too many people focus on cardio when they’re trying to lose weight,” says James Eagar, a licensed athletic trainer and director of sports medicine at The Training Room. There are a few reasons strength training is often a better pick. First, it can burn just as many, if not more, calories than cardio. “The more weight moved, the more calories expended,” says Eagar. “Plus, strength training increases lean muscle mass, which increases basal metabolic rate, which means your body consumes more calories even when not exercising.”
“I’ve found that sometimes rest breaks make all the difference,” says John Codella, a certified personal trainer. “I’ve worked with quite a few high-energy clients who approached their strength-training workouts with a ‘more is better’ attitude, wanting to keep their heart rate up when lifting weights,” he explains. But when he asks them to take a little more time between sets to breathe before the next round, they start to notice a big difference in performance and results. “They find they have more energy for their next set, so they became stronger, put on muscle a bit easier, and find themselves dropping extra weight more quickly.”
About 5 years ago, food blogger Rachel Lessenden lost the 10 pounds she’d been struggling with for years. She credits the weight loss and her ability to maintain it with not just her diet, but also choosing workouts she loves rather than ones she feels she has to do. “I noticed that when I did exercises I enjoy, like Zumba or long walks with my husband, I was able to lose and maintain my weight more easily,” she says. “I used to think long running sessions were the key, but I would be so hungry afterward that I would eat more to compensate. It was really hard to keep a calorie deficit going. Once I eased up on the extreme workouts, and just moved my body in some form daily, it was much easier to stay within my calorie deficit because I wasn’t constantly hungry.”
“One of my clients was going to bed at midnight and getting up at 4:30 a.m. five days a week so he could get to the gym and catch the first cycling class of the day, followed by a 30-minute group fitness class,” says Marvin Nixon, a certified personal trainer and health coach. Nixon’s client was already pretty fit, but he wanted to get leaner. “The big change we worked through was getting seven hours of sleep most nights of the week.” That meant going to bed earlier, and changing his gym routine so he could wake up later.
Though it sounds counterintuitive, skipping part of his workout in favor of recovery made all the difference. “The ‘sleep when you are dead’ mindset is killing us and making us miss our health goals,” says Nixon. “Other than a few outliers, we need 7–9 hours nightly. Not only did this client reduce his body fat down to the teens in just five weeks with more sleep and fewer intense workout sessions, his muscle mass increased — making him feel better about how he looked shirtless.”
“I spent about 13 years off and on struggling with my weight,” says Candice McDaniel, who is now a health and fitness coach. But McDaniel started to see weight-loss progress when she stopped doing really long workouts. “I could never get consistent with them because they took up so much time, and usually left me super sore for days,” she explains. Instead, she started doing 10–15-minute workouts five or six days a week. “I was able to get way more consistent with my exercise without burning myself out or taking too much time away from my family, which was a big issue as a busy mom of three.” Once McDaniel got consistent with her workouts and made some changes to her diet, the weight came off, and she’s been able to keep it off for good.
“With my clients trying to lose weight, one habit that has helped them immensely is adding in and quantifying what’s called non-activity exercise thermogenesis or NEAT” explains David Rosales, a certified personal trainer. “The premise is simple: Activities like going on regular walks and standing instead of sitting for some of the day add up to burn a lot of calories while preserving muscles.”
With his clients, Rosales tracks NEAT by having them wear a fitness tracker of their choice. Most commonly, the first change they make is adding a 10–15 minute walk in the middle of the work day. “This helps really break up the slog of work while developing a great habit for their physical health,” he says. From there, they work their way up.
For more inspiration, check out “Workout Routines” in the app to discover and log a wide variety of routines by performance specialists. Or build your own routine with exercises that fit your goals.