A common debate among fitness and weight loss experts is whether one should concentrate mainly on aerobic exercise or weight training to promote fat loss. While this may seem like a relatively straightforward issue, there are many factors which must be considered when deciding whether we should hit the treadmill or the weights.

Which burns more calories?

In general, a person can burn more calories during aerobic exercise than during weight training, and therefore aerobic exercise is generally considered the “go to” type of exercise for weight loss. Indeed, most research does support aerobic exercise as being superior to weight training for fat loss.

However, there are benefits to weight training that simply cannot be accomplished with aerobic exercise, and this fact must be considered when deciding on an exercise strategy

While weight training may not burn as many calories during the exercise session itself, it can elevate the resting metabolism for up to 48 hours following the training session – when done properly. Over time, this leads to significant caloric burn.

Consider a 35-year-old woman who has a resting metabolic rate of 1,500 calories per day. With a customized weight training program, it is reasonable to expect an increase in metabolic rate of 20 percent over the 48 hours immediately following a training session. This results in an increased metabolic rate to 1,800 calories per day during the recovery period, and an extra 600 calories burned over the two days following the training session.

An increase in caloric burn is clearly beneficial and has the potential to rival aerobic exercise depending on the intensity of how each exercise is performed.

Which is better for body composition?

Chronic aerobic exercise does lead to decreases in body fat, but it can also lead to decreases in muscle mass,  particularly when combined with a calorie-restricted diet, which is often the case.

The body adapts to aerobic exercise by becoming more efficient, and lighter bodies are easier to move around than heavier ones. Because muscle is a very dense tissue, it makes sense to get rid of some of it in order to make the body lighter. The downside of this is that muscle is metabolically active, and the more of it you have, the more calories you’ll burn.

For example, a person who loses 10 pounds of fat and 5 pounds of muscle will lose a total of 15 pounds. However, if that same person were to lose 10 pounds of fat and gain 5 pounds of muscle, she will only have lost 5 pounds, but will still be at a lower percentage body fat. In this scenario, the 5-pound loss is a much better position to be in from both a body composition and a metabolic standpoint.

Which gives better overall results?

While it’s tempting to make an argument for one type of exercise over the other, the truth is that neither type of exercise is all that great for fat loss if you’re not paying attention to your diet.

Generally, exercise is much better at enhancing weight loss when combined with a calorie-restricted diet than it is as a sole means of weight loss. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, it would take more than 250 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week to bring about (clinically) significant weight loss if the diet isn’t controlled. Many people are not willing to put in that much effort (or time) for the modest results this amount of exercise can potentially provide.

What is the bottom line?

The best type of exercise for fat loss is the one that you are willing to do for a lifetime. 

While some people love the idea of running on a treadmill, others would rather watch water boil. In an ideal world, your wellness regimen should be a combination of both weight training and aerobic exercise coupled with moderate calorie restriction. This strategy combines the health benefits and calorie burn of aerobic exercise with the metabolism enhancing and muscle building effects of strength training.

When combined with moderate calorie restriction you can create a diet and exercise regimen that can be done (and enjoyed) forever. Permanent behavior changes are what bring about permanent losses in body fat.

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