Combining exercise with a healthy diet is the most effective way to shed extra pounds. Working out three days a week is a great place to start, and it will help you begin to create the calorie deficit necessary for weight loss. How much weight you can lose depends on a lot of factors including how long you work out each day, what type of exercise you do and the quality of your diet.
How much weight you will lose working out three times a week depends on several factors, including the type and duration of your exercise.
It's All About the Calories
Exercise is such an important part of weight loss because of the calories it burns. Moving your body expends energy in the form of calories, and it helps balance the calories you consume each day from food and beverages.
That balance — or imbalance — is what leads to weight gain. Consuming too many calories and not getting enough exercise causes your body to store unused energy as fat. In order to begin to lose fat, you have to flip the equation, restricting the calories you take in below the calories you expend.
In addition to your diet, exercise is the only other factor in weight management that you can control. Other things like genetics, health conditions, medication side effects and age all contribute to your ability to burn fat and lose weight. So it's important to understand how to manipulate factors including type, time and intensity when exercising so you can get the most burn for your buck.
Type, Time and Intensity
All exercise is not created equal, which is why it's impossible to provide a simple answer to the question "If I go to the gym three times a week, when will I see results?" Well, what are you doing when you go to the gym? How long do you spend there? How hard are you working?
Some people go to the gym and walk on the treadmill while reading a magazine for 30 minutes. Then, they go into the weight room with the intention of lifting some weights, but they end up talking to their friends instead. This is not going to burn many calories or help you create much of a calorie deficit.
In fact, according to Harvard Health Publishing, a 155-pound person walking at a pace of 3.5 MPH will only burn 149 calories in 30 minutes. That's not much, and depending on the calories in your diet, it may not do anything to help you lose weight.
But say you went into the gym and rode the stationary bike at a vigorous pace for 30 minutes or took a high-impact aerobics class for an hour. Vigorous-intensity activities burn more calories than light or moderate-intensity activities like leisurely or brisk walking. And, the longer you exercise, the more calories you'll burn.
Depending on your weight, you could burn between 315 and upwards of 800 calories on the bike or in the aerobics class. If you also do 30 minutes of weight lifting, you could tack on another 90 to 133 calories. Those kinds of workouts are the types that help you create a deeper calorie deficit and encourage faster fat loss.
Calculating a Calorie Deficit
Because there are so many factors involved in weight loss that are beyond your control, you can only guesstimate how long it will take you to lose a certain amount of weight. For example, take the widely accepted theory that a pound of fat contains 3,500 calories. If this is true, for every 3,500-calorie deficit you create, you could lose a pound of fat.
Whether you do this through exercise, diet or both, doesn't make a difference. You could burn 500 calories at the gym and then cut 500 calories from your diet to create a daily deficit of 1,000 calories. According to the Mayo Clinic, you would lose 2 pounds of fat a week if you did this. Therefore, you could assume that after a month, you'll have lost 8 pounds, 16 pounds after two months and 24 pounds after four months.
This just might work for you. But for most people, weight loss isn't linear. At the beginning of an exercise and diet program, you might lose weight quite rapidly, according to an article published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in March 2014.
But this is mostly water weight, stored carbohydrate and lean muscle tissue. You'll lose weight on the scale, but your body fat percentage won't budge a lot. After the first few days to weeks, your body will begin burning more fat; however, weight loss will occur at a slower pace.
Improve Your Odds
If you really want to see progress quickly, it may help to increase your activity beyond working out three days a week. If you're working out for two hours a day, you're good, but if, like most people, you're lucky to get in 30 to 45 minutes at a time, you could benefit from doing more.
A good place to start is with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) physical activity guidelines for adults, which recommend getting a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.
You might be meeting those requirements already, in which case it's time to up the ante. A better goal, according to the HHS, is to aim for 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 150 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise weekly. Unless you're exercising at a moderate intensity for 100 minutes each of the three days or at a vigorous intensity for 50 minutes on those three days, you're not quite there yet.
And these recommendations are just for cardio exercise. The HHS also recommends adults engage in a strength-training activity at least two days a week, targeting all the major muscle groups. You can do body weight exercises at home or lift weights in the gym; either way, this adds on more time that is likely not going to fit in with a three-day-a-week exercise routine.
But here's the thing: It doesn't pay to stress out about what you should be doing and how long it will take you to reach your goals. It's more important to focus on doing what you are reasonably able to do right now, and working to gradually increase the factors like time, type and intensity that can get you results even faster.
Most important, choose activities that you enjoy doing, even if they don't burn the most calories. Ultimately, weight loss success is about being consistent. If you look forward to exercising rather than dread it, you will be able to stick with it long term.
- NIH: "Factors Affecting Weight & Health"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Time to Correctly Predict the Amount of Weight Loss With Dieting"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines, 2nd Edition"