I am a person who believes in math, science, and logic. I hate it when someone tells me that the best way to lose weight is cardiovascular exercise, lifting weights, and diet. And then they don't spend anymore time explaining why. For me, the derivation is more important than the proof itself (forgive the kludgey math metaphor), otherwise it's hard for me to buy in.
So let me start off by telling you that the best way to lose weight is cardiovascular exercise, lifting weights, and diet.
If I do a good job explaining it, the rest of this post will tell you why.
When I got really serious about losing weight earlier this year, I did a bunch of research. I knew it would take a long time to reach my goal (losing 60 lbs), but I wanted to make it as efficient and quick as possible. The first thing I found was really obvious:
Calories Burned - Calories Consumed = Calorie Deficit = Weight Loss
That is weight loss boiled down to a simple formula. The higher your calorie deficit, the more weight you will lose. To throw another formula into the mix, 3500 calories is equal to 1 lb of body fat. So if you want to lose 1 lb of fat a week, you need to burn 500 calories more than you eat every day. The one simple rule I can give is this: it is impossible to lose weight without creating a calorie deficit.
The Calories Burned part of the equation can be further split into BMR + Calories Burned during Exercise. So the equation now looks like this:
BMR + Burned Calories due to Exercise - Calories Consumed = Calorie Deficit
Everything I researched pointed to this "magic" formula. So I took a closer look at the 3 things on the left and tried to figure out how to make it as efficient as possible.
BMR, or Basal Metabolic Rate is something you don't have any control over. It takes into account your age, sex, height, and weight. It is a measure of how many calories your body burns just to keep itself running. There is a pretty good BMR calculator here (everyone is different, so no BMR calculation is going to be perfect, but it will get you in the ballpark.)
I am a 6'4", 27 year old male. When I first started trying to lose weight, I was 266 lbs and my BMR was 2505 calories per day. Basically, if I was in a coma, I would need 2500 calories to maintain my weight. As a comparison, I redid the calculation with my goal weight of 206 lbs and I got 2131 calories per day. So clearly your weight plays a big role in your BMR.
Also, your BMR seems to be a lot more important than exercise in the "calories burned" part of the formula. I mean according to the formula, if I ate nothing and never exercised, I would lose 2/3 lbs every day. It would seem that increasing your BMR would be way more important than exercising more or eating less. It would be pretty difficult to burn 2500 calories in a workout. But you can't change your BMR, so why am I even talking about it?
Well, it turns out that I was lying a little bit when I said you're BMR is a fixed value. There is a different parameter that you have some control over (that isn't taken into account in the online calculator that I linked to). Actually, your BMR is almost solely based on your lean body mass, and the other 4 things in the formula are just used to approximate it since % lean body mass is not easy to calculate without having it professionally measured.
The main take away from this is that your BMR is higher when your body is more muscular, and lower when it's flabby. Muscle requires more energy to maintain than fat. So the first component of losing weight should be to increase your muscle mass.
So I started lifting weights 2 times a week. I focused on my upper body because I knew my legs would need a break from doing cardio. Aside from the benefits of having an increased metabolism, feeling stronger is a pretty good motivator. That said, weight lifting isn't really the way I want to spend my time at the gym. After almost 6 months of working out, I still have to force myself to do my weights days, but the benefit is tangible and the theory is sound, so that's enough motivation to push through it.
I like to mix it up a little bit to keep things interesting. Sometimes I will do high reps for each exercise at a lower weight (20 reps X 3 sets). This has the benefit of leaving your muscles feeling rock hard, like you really used every last ounce of strength. The only downside is that it takes a little longer.
Sometimes I'll do heavy weights and lower reps, but more sets (6 reps X 6 sets). Doing fewer reps allows you to lift more weight, and after a week of doing light weights makes you feel super strong. The downside is that you don't feel quite as physically exhausted afterward. Like maybe you could do the whole thing again in an hour or two.
And sometimes I'll do something in between (12 reps X 3 sets with moderate weights). The benefits and downside are also somewhere in the middle. For someone who doesn't have a specific strength-related goal, mixing it up like this takes out some of the monotony.
Calories Burned Wile Exercising
The BMR is a calculation of how many calories you burn while not moving. Basically, how much energy you would use if you slept in bed all day. Depending on your activity level, you will burn an extra 20% (sedentary) to 100% (super-athlete) of your BMR due to exercise. That means that just by doing things like eating, driving, brushing your teeth, sitting on the couch, or watching TV, I was burning 2500 calories from my BMR and an additional 500 calories from not being unconscious.
Fortunately, this number is way easier to increase than your BMR (and you can start burning more calories right now, instead of waiting for your muscles to grow). You just have to get your heart pumping. There are a bunch of ways to calculate calories burned for a variety of exercises, and none of them are exactly right. Distance and speed are not as important as effort level and time.
Distance and speed are about efficiency, which is the opposite of what you want to do if your primary goal is burning calories. When the exercise becomes easy, it's your body trying to tell you that it has found an efficient way perform what you are asking of it. And it means that if you spend the same amount of time at the same effort level, you will be burning fewer calories. So you either need to bump up the duration, or bump up the intensity. Or do something that keeps your body guessing. If you want to maximize your calorie burn from cardiovascular exercise, it shouldn't be comfortable or easy.
I started out using the elliptical machine about 3 times a week and eventually moved up to 4 times a week. I normally do between 50 and 60 minutes with the occasional 80-90 minute workout thrown in on Saturday. I like the "cardio" program because it mixes things up. It's 2 minutes of light-moderate effort (130-150 bpm) and then 2 minutes of hard effort (160-180 bpm). It prevents your body from getting in a steady-state "efficient" mode and keeps the calories burning.
This may be a part of the plan that just works better for me than other people. Unlike most people I know, I really like cardiovascular exercise. I like the elliptical machine because it allows me to push myself as hard as I want. My favorite days are the ones where I had a good meal and a good night's sleep the night before. I'm full of energy it's easy to push myself into the 190 bpm range on the hard parts and recover to about 170 bpm on the easy parts. After 45 minutes I'll have burned 1000 calories.
The problem with losing weight though is that you have to work harder to keep up the calorie burn. I started out at a low resistance, and am now about half way up to the maximum of the machine. The most important thing I have discovered is that if it's still hard, then I'm still burning a bunch of calories. I have to push myself up to that next resistance level or I'll get comfortable and the weight loss will slow down.
Diet is pretty self-explanatory. You want to minimize the amount of calories that you eat. It's also really easy to overlook. It's not so much about how much you eat, but what you eat.
In my earlier years, I never really paid any attention to what I was eating. My three most important criteria for food were convenience, taste, and cost. My ideal meal was something I could get quickly, without traveling very far, and without making it myself. It didn't have to taste like "real food" as long as it tasted good. And if I could be full after spending 5 or 6 bucks, then I felt like it was a good deal. Basically, my ideal meal was driving 2 minutes to Taco Bell.
When you are overweight, it is because you are eating more food than you need. Overeating causes your stomach to stretch. So the first struggle of dieting for me was feeling full after a meal. I forced myself to look at what I was eating. Initially, I tried to find the biggest thing I could eat for the lowest amount of calories. Things like salad, popcorn, and pickles.
But I couldn't eat just those 3 things every night. So for the first 2 weeks, I went to bed feeling not quite hungry, but definitely not full either. Eventually, my stomach shrank back down to a normal size, and I started feeling full after smaller and smaller portions of food.
The second thing I struggled with was time. I went from driving through a fast food window twice a day to having to actually make my own food. For lunch, I decided to go half way. No more fast food, but I wasn't exactly making my own food either. I settled on a bowl of Campbell's soup (150-200 calories) , a make-it-yourself sandwich-in-a-box (300-400 calories), and a bag of baked chips (100 calories). I make my lunch in about 4 minutes.
For dinner, my problem was eating by myself. My wife works late a lot of nights, and it's usually a pain to cook for just one person. So I focused on quick, simple things that could be cleaned up easily. I bought some pre-made stuffed pasta and pasta sauce (700-800 calories), or a frozen skillet dinner (550-650), or Tuna Helper (600-700). Occasionally, if I was feeling really lazy, I would cook a can of turkey chili and eat a can of tuna with some crackers (600). I have since graduated to slightly more complex meals, but I can still make dinner somewhere in between 5 and 20 minutes (if I have to cook pasta).
My third struggle ended up not being as big a deal as I thought it would be. Giving up soda. I used to hate the taste of water. Why would I want to drink this bland, colorless, odorless thing when I could have a Mountain Dew? Well, I added up the calories from sodas that I was drinking every day and it was more than half a lb of fat a week. One of the easiest decisions I've ever made. And after the initial week of withdrawal headaches, water started tasting pretty good. In fact, by drinking only water, it somehow made me crave it even more.
Putting It All Together
So, as a recap, here are the things you should know about weight loss:
BMR + Calories Burned Exercising - Calories Consumed = Calorie Deficit = Weight Loss
- BMR - Can be increased by lifting weights (building lean body mass)
- Calories Burned Exercising - Has a base component for being a conscious human being, and is greatly increased by working out hard for long durations
- Calories Consumed - Can be decreased by eating less food.
So based on this, it would seem like the best thing you could do is lift weights, run until you pass out, and starve yourself.
Hopefully your spidey sense is tingling after reading that sentence.
There is a fourth component to weight loss that is just as important as the other 3 (if not more-so): keeping yourself healthy. There is a lower limit on the calories you need to consume, and an upper limit on the maximum calorie deficit you can safely achieve.
Don't eat much less than your BMR in calories every day. The amount of energy your body can replace from its fat stores is limited to a certain rate. If you don't eat enough, your metabolism will start to slow way down, and your body will start using your muscles as it's source of food (instead of fat). According to some research, this rate is about 30 cal/lb of fat. Which means that a 200 lb person with 20% body fat can safely create a deficit of 40lb * 30 cal = 1200 calories a day. The amount of fat you can burn by diet alone slows down as you lose more body fat since there is less fat to replenish your energy from. At a certain point you hit diminishing returns and start metabolizing your hard-earned muscle instead.
There is a maximum calorie deficit that you can safely achieve, and it's similar to what I mentioned above. This was one area where I couldn't find a lot of good information, so take this with a grain of salt. The maximum rate of fat metabolism increases when you do cardiovascular exercises, which means that you can safely create a higher deficit through exercise than by diet alone. But, there is still an upper limit to how much energy can be replenished from your fat stores, and without any real research on this effect, I'm not going to list a formula for calculating it.
My suggestion is to just never eat less than your BMR (or consult a doctor first). It's safer to just make up the calories with exercise, and you won't have to starve yourself. You need to eat a certain amount of food in order for your body to function, and you need to eat certain types of food to exercise effectively (carbs).
My other recommendation is to take it slow. Don't go out and overdo it or you'll lose motivation. Or you'll get injured or sick and have to sit out for a few weeks. On the food front, start out by eating just a little bit less, and make healthy choices like cutting out the soft drinks and fast food. Also, it can be useful to keep a food/exercise diary until you get into a routine. I kept one for about 1 month and a half, until I basically had every meal or workout memorized. Then one day, I realized I didn't need it anymore because my routine was ingrained into my life.
I set a goal to lose 2 lbs a week for the first couple of months and then between 1 and 1.5 lbs a week after to lose 60 lbs. After setting this goal, I did the research, and put together a plan that would allow me to lose the most weight as safely and as quickly as possible.
3-4 days a week, I do hard cardiovascular exercise for 50 minutes to an hour (about 1000-1200 calories according to the machine). 2 days a week I lift weights (arms, chest, abs, and back to give my legs a break from the cardio). I strive to eat my BMR in calories for each week. Which means I get to enjoy that high-calorie meal every once in a while without feeling bad about it. Every 6-8 weeks, sometimes on purpose and sometimes because life intrudes, I get a week off to recover (and as a bonus, this tricks my body into losing some efficiency on the elliptical machine.)
After following this plan, I've lost close to 2.5 lbs per week for the first 3 months, and 1.5 to 2 lbs per week for the next 2 and a half months. There's lots of other benefits that I've gained, but from a pure weight loss standpoint, I'm ecstatic. As of this morning, I've lost 50 lbs and that goal that seemed so out of reach 5 and a half months ago is about 5 or 6 weeks from being met.