Let’s say you absolutely abhor working out. (We know you’re out there, even if you don’t want to cough up to it.) How much are you screwing yourself over in the weight-loss department?
In truth, probably not that much. While burning calories through exercise can help swing the calories in < calories out equation in your favor, you can certainly drop pounds without ever actually working out.
“Weight loss is generally due to 75 to 80 percent diet, and only 20 to 25 percent exercise,” says exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning specialist (C.S.C.S) Todd Parker, founder of Todd Parker Training Systems. That means that you can overhaul your diet to be lower calorie and more nutritious (lean proteins, lots of green veggies, and minimal or no processed foods and sugars) to hit your goal. It will just take a bit—in some cases, a lot—longer to get there.
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That’s because your ability to lose weight quickly depends on several factors. First and foremost: your metabolism. While some of us are blessed with a genetically fast calorie-zapping engine, some of us need to resort to greater and longer-lasting changes to see a real difference. Your starting weight also plays a role: The heavier you are from the get-go, the faster you will slim down when you make better diet choices, says Parker. (Speed up your progress towards your weight-loss goals with Women's Health's Look Better Naked DVD.)
But that 75/25 breakdown might not be so cut and dry after all. More research is showing that “you can also see results by improving your sleep habits and stress levels,” says Wil Fleming, C.S.C.S., owner of Force Fitness and Performance. You want at least seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, as well as effective stress-coping skills to keep your body’s hormones running smoothly.
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Okay, so you can reshape your body sans exercise. But the more pressing question is should you?
“An active lifestyle provides so many benefits that a sedentary one doesn’t,” says Fleming. Those include lower blood pressure, which means a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, improved mental health, better bone density, boosted brain function—the list goes on.
Not exercising means you also may lose muscle. If you're losing weight for several months to a year or more (which is likely the case if you’re skipping the gym), your body will start using your muscles for energy after it's done with your fat stores, says Parker. Losing muscle mass means losing strength—a.k.a. you’ll have a harder time lifting your 30-pound laundry hamper or overstuffed carry-on luggage. And, more importantly, less lean muscle means a slower metabolism.
Bottom line: You don’t have to hit SoulCycle three times a week or go HAM at the gym every time you visit to lose weight. “If you really don’t like exercising, think more in terms of movement,” says Fleming. “Instead of spending 150 minutes per week working out, get several five to 15 minute bursts of moderate-intensity movement per day.” Power-walk your dog or take the stairs instead of the elevator.
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Of course, finding movement you actually enjoy is key. So experiment until you find something that makes you feel badass, glamorous, or generally positive afterward—boxing, barre, and dance cardio are all worthy options.
And whether you’re looking to lose a small amount of weight (say, five to 10 pounds) or see a major transformation (20, 50, even 100 pounds) but don’t want to spend much time in spandex, the best bang for your buck is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Make sure you hit the four major movement groups (squatting, pressing, pulling, and hinging) and include a purely metabolic component (anything that gets your heart rate soaring, like battle ropes or high knees). Combine this twice a week with increased movement (walking, jogging, stairs, etc.), clean eating, solid sleep, and stress control and you’ll be well on your way to your goal—much more quickly than with diet alone