If you find tracking aspects of your health really useful for maintaining good habits, then chances are that you have also considered which workout burns the most calories.
While exercise is about much more than getting bogged down in the numbers, and is crucial to mental wellbeing as well as long-term health, if healthy and sustainable fat loss is your goal then it can be helpful to know which types of training serve up the best energy expenditure.
Now, when you’re trying to determine the perfect workout routine for calorie burn, it’s important to know that it depends on several factors like your age and how much you weigh, as well as how long it lasted for and how sweaty your training session is (look at our best dumbbells for women guide if you want to increase the intensity).
“First and foremost, any workout you enjoy doing is probably the best for creating a calorie burn, due to the fact that you are more likely to stick to a workout you look forward to,” notes Katrin Schlee, a personal trainer at fitness platform Gympass. “Consistency is key when trying to drop body fat through a calorie deficit.”
That said, experts agree there are certain forms of training that will supercharge your fitness journey...
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Which workout burns the most calories?
Yep, you really can't go wrong with a good old plod of the pavements. “In terms of the actual exercise that will give you the most 'bang for your buck', running is up there at the top of my list,” says Schlee. “This kind of training burns the most calories because it is weight-bearing, intense and requires effort from the musculature in your entire body—and particularly so from your legs and glutes.”
So, what exactly makes it better than a long stroll? “All other factors being equal, running burns more total calories than walking because your body exerts more energy,” continues Shlee. “Even though you may propel the same body weight over the same distance, the latter leads to your body using less oxygen, because it requires less energy to work against gravity."
Therefore, those who would rather opt for a walk—because it is lower impact and may be more suitable due to factors like injury or age—will need to cover a longer distance in order to expend as much energy as when running.
Schlee points to the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, which has estimated that a 150-pound person burns 45 calories when walking a mile and 94.5 calories when running a mile. So, on that basis, a person would need to walk 2.1 times the distance to burn the same number of calories as when they run, regardless of body weight. Perhaps speeding through that 5k isn't so bad after all...
Unsurprisingly, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) also makes the leaderboard of the sweatiest workouts—and it may even beat running.
“While the latter may seem like the most effective way to burn calories over the space of 45 minutes, if you consider this in a 24-hour window, it’s actually a HIIT workout—especially one that features weights—that is best in this respect," explains Jason Bone, head of strength at FLEX Chelsea. “That's because it can elevate your metabolism for hours after exercise.” This is as a result of an effect called EPOC—or Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption—where your body will continue to burn calories even when you’re recovering.
What is it that makes HIIT—which can burn 450 calories in just half an hour—so effective at pushing your body? “Intense bursts of exercise, alternated with short rest periods, push your heart rate up,” explains David Wiener, a training specialist at fitness app Freeletics. “It is also great for building overall fitness and stamina, and it works all planes of motion—using a range of lateral movements and rotational exercises that help to strengthen the whole body."
No wonder it became a hit for lockdown home workouts and is beloved of everyone from fitness favorites Kayla Itsines and Jillian Michaels to Hollywood stars like J Lo and Shay Mitchell.
Who says you need to part with loads of money to train hard? “Skipping is a fantastic example of a simple workout that can burn a lot of calories,” notes personal trainer Em Furey (@emfurey). “Just a 30-minute session can blitz through around 300 to 500." She says it’s best done in intervals, recommending 30 seconds of work, then 30 seconds of rest, and so on.
There are more benefits of skipping, in addition to calorie burn. “It is great for developing coordination and for your posture, as well as cardiovascular endurance and strength in the lower legs and core,” explains Wiener. “It also helps build bone density, which guards against osteoporosis.”
And what if you haven’t picked up a skipping rope since school? “If you’re a beginner, start slow and do it in 20 to 30-second bursts,” advises Wiener. “Once you've mastered that flick-of-the-wrist and your timing, work on increasing your speed and duration to burn more calories and learn more complex moves.” Now, hop to it!
Sure, marathons and dozens of burpees may get you sweaty real fast, but there are gentler forms of training that still burn the calories—particularly if you are new to exercise or returning after an injury.
“For instance, swimming burns calories while increasing muscle strength and blood flow, as well as lung and heart capacity,” says Wiener. “As little as 30 minutes burns about the same number of calories as the same time spent jogging, but with the added benefit of being low-impact and therefore causing less stress on the body.”
Additionally, lifting weights can also be a great option. “Strength training helps build muscle—which, in turn, will help drive calorie burn,” explains Samantha Robbins, personal trainer at Gympass. “Muscle is metabolically active, meaning it burns calories even at rest, and building lean muscle is the ultimate path to long-term sustainable calorie burn."
She notes that focusing on compound exercises—such as bench presses or press-ups, squats and rows—is great for helping you achieve this since they work many muscles at once. Short on space for equipment at home, and can't make it to the gym? You can still tone up with one of these best resistance bands.
Lauren is a freelance writer and editor with more than six years of digital and magazine experience. Most recently, she has been the Acting Commissioning Editor of Women's Health—where she co-produced the Going For Goal podcast—and has previously also written news and features for titles including The Telegraph, Grazia, Stylist, Dazed, The Sun's Fabulous, Yahoo Style UK and Get The Gloss. She covers all aspects of lifestyle, specializing in health, beauty, and travel. Can't live without: oat milk lattes, new podcast episodes, long walks, and great skincare.
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