Hit the Gym or Go for a Jog? Getting the Most Out of Aerobic Exercise

Maximize the fat burning potential of your workout

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Contrary to claims often made by the fitness industry, research has not found targeted fat reduction exercises (i.e., ab tightening, thigh toning) to be an effective way to achieve your ideal body composition. Instead, for fat loss, Professor Ormsbee recommends an assortment of exercises that involve and impact your whole body.

Man jogging with his dog
A workout using a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise will help you burn fat and build endurance. Photo By Soloviova Liudmyla / Shutterstock

What Is Aerobic Exercise?

Exercise falls into two major categories: aerobic exercise like walking, running, swimming, or cycling and resistance exercise like lifting weights or doing body weight strength movements.

Aerobic exercise is repetitive and relies on the continuous activation of the heart and lungs, often called cardiovascular, or cardiorespiratory, exercise. Most people think that aerobic exercise is the key piece needed for fat loss. 

Resistance exercise is less continuous and involves moving or lifting objects with forceful muscle contractions. Resistance exercise is typically related to gains in muscle mass. However, plenty of evidence demonstrates that this form of exercise can actually be an excellent fat loss tool and way to improve body composition.

Most major governing bodies that provide exercise recommendations such as the American College of Sports Medicine suggest that using both aerobic and resistance exercise should provide benefits for both improving health and body composition. A combination of exercise types is also a good idea for fat loss.

With this in mind, you are probably wondering which types of aerobic exercise and resistance exercise will maximize fat loss specifically.

Exercise Factors

Let’s begin with aerobic exercise. We can manipulate several factors when it comes to the exercise itself. We can change the mode or the kind of exercise; for example, we can alternate from swimming to running to cycling to dancing and back again. 

We can change the duration of the exercise from 20 or 30 minutes to an hour or more. We can change the intensity of the exercise—how difficult it feels—which is often based on your heart rate zone or your own subjective feeling. Finally, you can change the frequency of this exercise or how often you work out over the course of a week or month.

In general, keep in mind that something is better than nothing. The more physical work we do, the more calories we burn, and the greater chance for our total calorie deficit to help with fat loss. However, we can make certain choices to maximize our aerobic exercise specifically for the greatest fat loss for a given time spent exercising. 

“Personally, I still compete in triathlon races of various distances every year,” Professor Ormsbee said. “Triathlon involves swimming, biking, and running—in that order. Thus, altering mode, duration, intensity, and frequency of exercise is a very common occurrence for me. I’ll change all of these factors over the course of training in order to optimize my body composition, performance, and health.”

Personal Preferences

Let’s first consider the mode, or the type of aerobic exercise. Much of this comes down to your personal preferences. What do you enjoy doing? What is your accessibility to certain equipment, like a bike or a pool? 

What time of year is it? Is it snowy or really hot? What is your injury history? Certain activities may be less stressful to achy joints or problem areas.

Now, it might make sense that the more movement you do, the better. Thus, if you run as opposed to just sitting on a recumbent bike for the same amount of time, you will probably have more effective fat loss because you are actually using both your upper and lower body during exercise. With more muscles being worked, more overall energy is usually expended.

You may be wondering if swimming or running is a more effective workout for burning fat. We’ll reveal the details—as well as more information about how to get the most out of your aerobic workout—in tomorrow’s article.

Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
About Kate Findley 366 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.