From doing your mental health a solid to reducing your risk of dying from basically anything, there are a bazillion non-weight related reasons to get moving. If you want to get specific there’s: more stable blood sugar, better heart function, and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression (and way more).
It is 100 percent okay if your main motivation for sweating is to lose weight in the name of health. Research shows that physical activity builds or maintains muscle mass as you lose weight, which keeps your metabolism humming along even when you reduce the amount of calories that you eat.
But if you’re out here like, “Cool, so what now?” We’re about to explain, with the help of science and experts, the best plan of attack to get healthier by losing weight this year. Here’s how to make every minute of every workout really work, so you can burn more calories during exercise. Let’s get after it.
1. Do something you enjoy.
This seems obvious, but it’s worth repeating: The workout that’ll help you lose fat is the one you’ll actually do (and not hate literally every second of), you’ll be more likely to work harder and stick to your routine more consistently. “There are so many ways you can burn calories,” says Albert Matheny, registered dietitian, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and owner of the SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. “If you hate running, I guarantee you can still lose weight without running,” he adds.
2. When all else fails, go do some cardio.
If you can’t swing a gym membership, don’t have time to get to a workout class, or are too sore from yesterday to even think about touching a dumbbell, just do cardio. “Cardio has a low barrier to entry,” says Matheny. Meaning, you can do it no matter how in shape you are or how much money you have. Go for a walk, hop on your bike, or just walk up and down the stairs—every little bit counts (and burns calories).
3. Don’t let cardio machines trick you.
Treadmill telling you that you’ve burned a billion calories? Don’t call it a day just yet. “The information on cardio machines is often wildly inaccurate,” says Matheny. Instead, focus on your rate of perceived exertion (basically how much you’re huffing it, on a scale of one to 10) or the feedback from your fitness tracker. Better yet, hone in on a different metric while you cardio. Aiming for miles or meters instead of calories will make you feel like you’re achieving something no matter how much you burn.
4. Take a rest day, K?
“Going hard every day over-stresses your body, leading to injury or burnt out,” says Matheny. And since healthy weight loss takes time, training smart and taking recovery days when you need them will ultimately help you get to your goals quicker, he adds. Set aside at least one rest day per week by swapping the sweat for a walk or restorative yoga. (Or binge-watch You. No judgment.)
5. Put your phone away.
Bring your phone into your workout with you and it’s pretty much guaranteed to distract you (and limit your calorie-burn), says Matheny. If you need it for music, put that ish on “do not disturb” mode.
6. Actually work.
Going through the motions won’t help you lose weight—even if you elliptical for three episodes of Crash Landing On You. “From a scientific perspective, it’s the intensity of exercise that raises the metabolism,” says says Edward Jackowski, Ph.D., founder of EXUDE Fitness training programs and author of Escape Your Weight.
TL;DR: You should be able to talk, but working hard enough that you can’t rant about last night’s Bumble date from hell, says Jackowski.
7. Incorporate HIIT once or twice a week.
HIIT (high-intensity interval training), which involves alternating between intervals of all-out effort and recovery, can boost your resting metabolic rate for long after you leave the gym.
When you change things up, every system of the body has to adapt, explains Franci Cohen, an exercise physiologist, certified nutritionist, and founder of Fuel Fitness. The more work you give your body to do, the harder it has to work to get the job done.
Don’t attempt HIIT every day (your muscles won’t have time to recover), but a couple sessions per week go a long way, says Cohen. Drop into a local HIIT class, like Orangetheory or Barry’s Bootcamp, or try it on your own by alternating between four minutes of steady-state cardio and one minute of all-out effort.
8. Do not fear weights.
First of all, lifting weights burns just as many calories as doing cardio, according to Matheny. Plus, hitting the weight room helps you build muscle—and the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn after you leave the gym, Jackowski explains.
9. Alternate between different muscle groups.
If you’re strength training or doing a circuit, this technique helps you sustain a higher level of intensity for longer than if you worked the same muscle groups back-to-back, says Matheny. After you finish killing your legs with lunges, shift your focus to upper-body with overhead presses, and then get back to your lower-body with box jumps.
10. Stop wasting time between exercises.
The longer you keep your heart rate elevated, the harder your body has to work. So limit your rest as much as possible, suggests Matheny.
If you need something to hold you accountable, set a timer for 30 to 60 seconds, suggests Jess Cifelli, CPT, CycleBar Master Instructor.
11. Focus on full-body moves.
Whatever workout you’re doing, the more muscles you can get in on the action, the more calories you burn, says Matheny.
Swap the biceps curls and triceps dips for moves like squat-to-presses. For cardio, try rowing. “With correct form, rowing uses 85 percent of the muscles in your body,” says Row House trainer Bethany Stillwaggon, CPT.
12. Shoot for eight to 12 reps.
When you browse the dumbbell rack, pick a pair you can only lift for about eight to 12 reps, says Matheny. This moderate weight gives you the most muscle-building bang for your buck, so you get both the short-term and long-term benefits.
13. Relax with the marathon workouts.
You might feel like a rock star when you double up on fitness classes or outlast the girl on the next elliptical. But unless you’re a pro athlete or you’re training for a competition, “no one needs to work out for more than an hour and 15 minutes—more is not better,” Jackowski says.
14. Engage your core during every exercise.
Most exercises involve your abs in some capacity—and even more so if you remember to engage them. Since your core is a large muscle group, keeping your mind on those muscles means more calories burned, according to Cohen.
15. Throw a curveball in there.
Whether it’s switching up the timing of your intervals, holding a move for a few seconds longer than usual, doing an extra set, or standing on a Bosu ball instead of the floor, always switch something up in your usual routine.
“The more changes you throw at your body, the harder it has to work to return to equilibrium post-exercise, meaning you burn more calories,” says Stillwaggon. (The sciencey term for this is EPOC, or excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption.)
16. Try a different cardio machine.
If you always use the elliptical, try the treadmill. If you always use the treadmill, try the stair climber. Your usual 30-minute cardio session will feel like a 45-er.
17. Rethink your post-workout snack.
Don’t eat if you’re truly not hungry, but when you do chow down, make sure you’re post-workout eats contain protein and carbs (at least 0.14 grams of protein per pound of body weight—and three times as many carbs—to be exact).
Go for quality carbs (like sweet potato or whole grains) and protein (like chicken or tofu) on your plate to give your bod the fuel it needs to get you to your goals.
18. Sip water during your workout.
Proper hydration ensures you can work out at the intensity you need to maximize your caloric burn, so consider H2O your gym buddy, says Cohen.
19. Plan your playlists strategically.
Listening to music that pumps you up can help you push harder—and burn all the calories—during your workouts.
Three motivating beats SoulCycle instructor Lily Miesmer likes to play during her classes: “Right Here Right Now” by Fatboy Slim, “Ice Princess” by Azaelia Banks, and “Circles” by I See Monstas. You’ll be ready to rev it up when the beat drops.
20. Forget about the scale.
The goal should be to have a greater percentage of lean muscle mass and smaller percentage of body fat, says Alyssa Petro, CPT, lead coach for Row House Hilton Head.
Thing is, if you build muscle while you shed fat, the scale might not budge. Like at all. Don’t get hung up on the numbers, and focus on how your clothes fit (and how you feel) instead.