Turning Your Body Into a Fat-Burning Machine

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If you feel like any extra calories you eat go straight to your belly or thighs, you're not imagining things. Those are usually the areas where you store fat because of your genes, hormones, age, lifestyle, and other factors. Your body tends to hoard calories as fat to keep you alive and safe. The challenge is learning how to get rid of that extra fat.

You hear a lot about fat-burning gimmicks such as working out in the fat-burning zonespot reduction, and foods or supplements that supposedly burn more fat. Instead, learn how to burn fat through a variety of types of exercise.

The Basics of Burning Fat

If you're trying to lose weight, knowing how your body uses calories for fuel can make a difference in how you approach your weight loss program. You get your energy from fat, carbohydrates, and protein.

Which one your body draws from depends on the kind of activity you're doing. Most people want to use fat for energy, which makes sense. You figure that the more fat you can use as fuel, the less fat you will have in your body. But, using more fat doesn't automatically lead to losing more fat.

Understanding the best way to burn fat starts with some basic facts about how your body gets its energy:

  • The body primarily uses fat and carbohydrates for fuel. A small amount of protein is used during exercise, but it's mainly used to repair the muscles after exercise.
  • The ratio of these fuels will shift depending on the activity you're doing.
  • For higher-intensity exercises, such as fast-paced running, the body will rely more on carbs for fuel than fat. That's because the metabolic pathways available to break down carbs for energy are more efficient than the pathways available for fat breakdown.
  • For long, slower exercise, fat is used more for energy than carbs.
  • When it comes to weight loss, it doesn't matter what type of fuel you use. What matters is how many calories you burn as opposed to how many calories you take in.

This is a very simplified look at energy with a solid take-home message. When it comes to weight loss, what matters is burning more calories, not necessarily using more fat for energy.

The harder you work, the more calories you'll burn overall. Think about it this way—when you sit or sleep, you're in your prime fat-burning mode. But, you've probably never contemplated the idea of sleeping more to lose weight, as lovely as that thought is.

The bottom line is that just because you're using more fat as energy doesn't mean you're burning more calories.

The Myth of the Fat Burning Zone

Exercising at lower intensities will use more fat for energy. This basic premise is what started the theory of the fat burning zone, which is the idea that working in a certain heart rate zone (around 55 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate) will allow your body to burn more fat. Over the years, this theory has become so ingrained in our exercise experience that we see it touted in books, charts, websites, magazines, and even on cardio machines at the gym.

The trouble is that it's misleading. Working at lower intensities isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it won't burn more fat off your body unless you're burning more calories than you're eating. One way to increase your calorie burn is to exercise at higher intensities.

This doesn't necessarily mean that you should avoid low-intensity exercise if you want to burn more fat. There are some specific things you can do to burn more fat and it all starts with how and how much you exercise.

Burn Fat With a Mix of Cardio Exercise Intensities

You may be confused about exactly how hard to work during cardio. You may even think that high-intensity exercise is the only way to go. After all, you can burn more calories and, even better, you don't have to spend as much time doing it. But having some variety can help you stimulate all of your different energy systems, protect you from overuse injuries, and help you enjoy your workouts more. You can use a sample cardio workout schedule to set up a cardio program that includes a variety of different workouts at different intensities.

High-Intensity Cardio

For our purposes here, high-intensity cardio falls between about 80 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR) or, if you're not using heart rate zones, about a 6 to 8 on a 10-point perceived exertion scale. What this translates to is exercise at a level that feels challenging and leaves you too breathless to talk in complete sentences. But you're not going all out, as in sprinting as fast as you can. There's no doubt that some high-intensity training work can be helpful for weight loss as well as improving endurance and aerobic capacity.

For example, a 150-pound person would burn about 225 calories after running at 6 mph for 30 minutes. If this person walked at 3.5 mph for that same length of time, he would burn 85 to 90 calories.

But, the number of calories you can burn isn't the whole story. If you do too many high-intensity workouts every week, you risk:

  • Overtraining
  • Overuse injuries
  • Burnout
  • Inconsistent workouts
  • Growing to hate exercise

Not only that but, if you don't have much experience with exercise, you may not have the conditioning or the desire for breathless and challenging workouts. If you have some kind of medical condition or injury, check with your doctor before doing high-intensity training (or any kind of training).

If you're doing several days of cardio each week, which is what is recommended for weight loss, you would probably want only one or two workouts to fall into the high-intensity range. You can use other workouts to target different areas of fitness (like endurance) and allow your body to recover.

Some examples of high-intensity workouts:

  • A 20-Minute Workout at a Fast Pace: You can use any activity or machine, but the idea is to stay in the high-intensity work zone throughout the workout. You'll find that 20 minutes is usually the recommended length for this kind of workout and most people wouldn't want to go much longer than that.
  • Interval TrainingA great way to incorporate high-intensity training without doing it continuously is by doing intervals. Alternate a hard segment (e.g., running at a fast pace for 30 to 60 seconds) with a recovery segment (e.g., walking for one to two minutes). Repeat this series for the length of the workout, usually around 20 to 30 minutes. A 30-60-90 interval workout is a good example of this kind of high-intensity workout.
  • Tabata TrainingThis is another form of high-intensity interval training in which you work very hard for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and repeat that for a total of four minutes. If you do this workout right, you shouldn't be able to breathe, much less talk.

Moderate-Intensity Cardio

There are a variety of definitions of what moderate-intensity exercise is, but it typically falls between about 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, which would be a level 4 to 6 on a 10-point perceived exertion scale. That means you are breathing harder than normal but can carry on a conversation without much difficulty and you feel pretty comfortable with what you're doing. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) often recommends this level of intensity in its exercise guidelines. The lower end of this range usually incorporates the fat burning zone.

Moderate-intensity workouts have some great benefits such as:

  • Comfort: It takes the time to build up the endurance and strength to handle challenging exercise. Moderate workouts allow you to work at a more comfortable pace, which means you may be more consistent with your program.
  • Better health: Even modest movement can improve your fitness while lowering your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
  • More choices: High-intensity workouts will usually involve some kind of impact or, at the least, a fast pace. You can usually get into the moderate heart rate zones with a variety of activities, providing you work hard enough. Even raking leaves or shoveling snow, if you do it vigorously enough, can fall into that category.

For weight loss purposes, you would likely want the majority of your cardio workouts to fall into this range. Some examples:

Low-Intensity Activity

Low-intensity exercise is considered to be below 60 to 70 percent of your MHR, or about a level 3 to 5 on a 10-point perceived exertion scale. This level of intensity is no doubt one of the most comfortable areas of exercise, keeping you at a pace that isn't too taxing and doesn't pose much of a challenge. This, along with the idea that it burns more fat, makes this a popular place to stay. But, as we've learned, you can burn more calories if you work harder, and that's what you want for weight loss.

That doesn't mean that low-intensity exercise has no purpose. It involves the kind of long, slow activities you feel like you could do all day and, even better, activities you usually enjoy such as:

  • Taking a stroll
  • Light gardening
  • A long, slow bike ride
  • A gentle stretching routine

This doesn't have to be a structured, scheduled workout, but something you do all day long by walking more, taking the stairs, doing more physical chores around the house, etc.

Exercise such as Pilates and yoga are at a lower intensity but help develop your core, flexibility, and balance. They can be a part of a well-rounded routine

Exercise Consistently to Burn Fat

It may seem like a no-brainer that regular exercise can help you burn fat and lose weight. But it's not just about the calories you're burning. It's also about the adaptations your body makes when you exercise on a regular basis. Many of those adaptations lead directly to your ability to burn more fat without even trying. When you exercise regularly:

  • Your body becomes more efficient at delivering and extracting oxygen. Simply put, this helps your cells burn fat more efficiently.
  • Your body has better circulation. This allows fatty acids to move more efficiently through the blood and into the muscle. That means fat is more readily available for fueling the body.
  • Your body increases the number and size of mitochondria. These are the cellular power plants that provide energy inside each cell of your body.

Regular exercise will also help you manage your weight. The more activity you engage in, the more calories you'll burn, and the easier it is to create the calorie deficit needed to lose weight.

Tips for Consistent Exercise

Use these ways to ensure you are exercising regularly:

  • Schedule exercise. Plan exercise time every day, even if it's just a few minutes.
  • Split up your workouts. You can get the same benefit from short workouts spread throughout the day as do with continuous workouts.
  • Change daily routines to incorporate activity. Park at the edge of the parking lot at work to add more walking time, or add an extra lap at the mall when shopping. Integrating more activity into your usual routines will help you stay active, even if you don't have time for a structured workout.
  • Make exercise your focus. Schedule the rest of your day around it instead of trying to squeeze it in when you can. If it's not a priority, you won't do it.

To keep it even simpler, just choose an accessible activity like walking and do it every day at the same time. It doesn't matter how long you walk, just that you show up at the same time. It's creating the habit that's always the hardest part.

Lift Weights to Burn Fat

Adding more muscle by lifting weights and doing other resistance exercises can also help with burning fat, especially if you're also dieting. While many people focus more on cardio for weight loss, there's no doubt that strength training is a key component in any weight loss routine.

Just some of the benefits include:

  • Preserves muscle mass. If you diet to lose weight, you actually risk losing muscle as well as fat. Muscle is metabolically active, so when you lose it, you also lose the extra calorie-burn muscles can provide.
  • Keeps your metabolism going. A diet-only approach to weight loss could lower a person's resting metabolic rate by up to 20 percent a day. Lifting weights and maintaining muscle helps keep the metabolism up, even if you're cutting your calories.
  • Helps you burn extra calories. If you lift weights at a higher intensity, you can actually increase your afterburn, or the calories you burn after your workout. That means that you burn calories during your workouts, but your body continues to burn calories even after your workout to allow your body to get back to its pre-existing state.

To start, choose a basic total body workout and do that about twice a week, with at least one day in between. As you get stronger, you can do more exercises, lift more weight, or add more days of strength training. It may take a few weeks but you'll eventually see and feel a difference in your body.

Use these strategies to burn more fat when strength training:

  • Compound Movements: Movements that involve more than one muscle group (e.g., squats, lunges, deadlifts, and triceps dips) help you lift more weight and burn more calories while training the body in a functional way.
  • Lift Heavy Weights: If you're a beginner, you should work your way up to heavy weights over time. Once your body is ready for more, lifting heavy forces your body to adapt by building more lean muscle tissue to handle that extra load.
  • Circuit Training: Circuit training is a great way to burn more calories by combining high-intensity cardio along with strength training exercises. You keep your heart rate elevated by moving from one exercise to another with little or no rest while focusing on both cardio and strength in the same workout.

If you want a more structured program, try a four-week slow build program which includes a schedule of cardio and strength workouts that allows you to gradually increase your intensity.

A Word From Verywell

There's no way around the fact that, when it comes to burning more fat, you have to work at it. There is no magic exercise, workout, or pill that will do the job for you. The good news is that it doesn't take much activity to push the body into that fat burning mode. Try incorporating some type of activity every day, even if it's just a quick walk, and build on that over time as it becomes more of a routine. Do that and you're on the way to burning more fat.

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