Are you wasting time on burpees? Frittering hours on free weights? Going in circles with circuits? There’s nothing worse than sweating it in the gym, without seeing the desired results. You want to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck in the exercise stakes but, without conclusive research proving which exercise is most effective, how do you know you’re spending your time efficiently?
Research may have established the best exercises for specific muscles. For example, a study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy in May 2010 found the swiss ball roll out and the swiss ball pike to be the most effective exercises in activating the upper and lower abs. However, research is yet to single out one exercise as the best for weight loss or general fitness.
“There are many answers,” says Dr Helen O’Connor, lecturer in exercise and sport science at the University of Sydney. “Resistance training helps to maintain lean mass and is also beneficial for the resting metabolic rate. However cardio tends to increase energy expenditure more and so results in greater weight loss.”
It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, partly because despite all the science and debate, the fun factor is a key ingredient in the perfect exercise, O’Connor says.
“In the end we need the population to move more and they will be more likely to do this if it’s practical and enjoyable, so the form of exercise has to have a level of personal preference.”
O’Connor nominates walking as the single best exercise because it’s both practical and enjoyable. “Walking is something most people can do,” she says, “and a [high] level of intensity is not absolutely required for weight loss.”
Most people find walking safe, which is one reason why it ranks with the experts as excellent exercise.
“Heavy weights can be injury producing, especially if a person is not sure how to lift well. I would never recommend weight lifting as a good form of exercise for children.”
“The single best exercise for weight loss? It all comes down to calories burned”, says Dr Timothy Fairchild, a senior lecturer in exercise physiology at Murdoch University. He therefore nominates running.
Running burns more calories than walking. Consider this, if you were a woman weighing 80kg and you wanted to burn off a 50g chocolate bar you would have to walk for 55 minutes. Or you could run for 24 minutes.
However, running comes with an increased chance of injury. In a poll of Runner’s World readers, 60% reported “chronic” injuries.
“Injury is especially likely in overweight runners,” says Fairchild. “Heavier runners put more stress on their joints and they also tend not to have done a lot of exercise in the past and so may have poor technique.”
Boot camps are also good for weight loss, but they fail as the ultimate exercise because their effectiveness comes down to the individual instructor.
“The thing with running is that it’s hard to cheat. If you run 10km in 60 minutes, that’s objective. If you run it a week later in 58 minutes, that’s more intense. It’s important to be truthful in yourself.”
Best exercise, on repeat
If you discover the best exercise, should you deviate from it at all? Theoretically, you don’t need to change your exercise to keep losing weight or getting fitter, as long as you change the intensity or time. But it helps psychologically, Fairchild says.
“If you do one form of training over and over again you have an increased risk of injury. Plus mixing it up can keep it enjoyable.
Wasted on the water
"One exercise I feel isn’t good for weight loss is swimming,” says Fairchild. “You can spend an hour and a half in the swimming pool and it doesn’t burn that many calories. That’s because it is not load bearing. The water supports your bodyweight so it doesn’t take a huge amount of energy to pull yourself through.”
Swimming not only lags in calorie burn but also makes people hungry, he says. “Whether or not different exercises elicit different hunger responses is something we are researching at Murdoch University at the moment. Anecdotally swimming seems to do that more than running or resistance training.”
That’s cardio licked but what about resistance training? Muscle building is “important” says Fairchild but tends to be more popular with men than women. “Women can be very focused on the number on the scales and strength training does not necessarily take that number down.”
However, weight training can help with overall toning and muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so build more muscle, burn more calories, even at rest.
The Biggest Loser’s own Commando Steve nominates the squat as his single favourite exercise. “Squatting is the movement of life! I could spend days teaching someone to squat properly,” he says.
“Once you have an awareness in your hip, everything else falls into place. I’m all about setting a foundation and building on that. The world’s best exercise is not about bells and whistles ... It’s the simpler approach is going to set you up for the long run.”
The Biggest Loser Club has a number of walking and running programs on offer, including Walk to Run, Run Fit: 5km, Run Fit: 10km and Run Fit: half marathon.