What You Need to Know About Burning Fat

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Your body stores calories as fat to keep you alive and safe. There are many gimmicks that claim to amplify fat burning, such as working out in the fat-burning zone, spot reduction, and foods or supplements that supposedly make you burn more fat.

If you intend to reduce the amount of fat stored in your body, learn how to burn fat through a variety of types of exercise instead of seeking a quick fix that is not likely to work. Here's what you need to know.

Basics of Burning Fat

If you're trying to reduce your body's fat stores, knowing how your body uses calories for fuel can make a difference in how you approach weight management. You get your energy from fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Which one your body draws from for energy depends on the kind of activity you're doing.

Most people want to use fat for energy. It may seem 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. The ratio of which fuels are utilized will shift depending on your activity. A small amount of protein is used during exercise, but it's mainly used to repair the muscles after exercise.

Higher-intensity exercises, such as fast-paced running, cause the body to rely on carbs for fuel. The metabolic pathways available to break down carbs for energy are more efficient than those for fat breakdown. Fat is used more for energy than carbs for long, slower exercise.

This is a very simplified look at energy with a solid take-home message. Burning more calories matters more than using fat for energy. The harder you work, the more calories you will burn overall.

It doesn't matter what type of fuel you use when it comes to weight loss. What matters is how many calories you burn.

Think about it this way—when you sit or sleep, you're in your prime fat-burning mode. But you probably don't think of sitting and sleeping more as a pathway to losing body fat. The bottom line is that just because you're using more fat as energy doesn't mean you're burning more calories.

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% 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 can be great, but it won't necessarily burn more fat off your body. 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 often and for how long you exercise.

Burn Fat With a Mix of Cardio

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 you don't have to spend as much time doing it.

But having some variety can help you stimulate each of your energy systems, protect you from overuse injuries, and help you enjoy your workouts more. You can set up a cardio program that includes a variety of different exercises at different intensities.

High-Intensity Cardio

For our purposes, high-intensity cardio falls between about 80% to 90% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). Or, if you're not using heart rate zones, about a six to eight 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.

You can get the same benefit from short workouts spread throughout the day as you do with continuous workouts. For example, a 150-pound person would burn about 341 calories after running at 6 mph for 30 minutes. If this person walked at 3.5 mph for that same length of time, they would burn 136 calories.

But, the number of calories you can burn isn't the whole story. Too many high-intensity workouts every week can put you at risk in a number of ways.

Potential Risks

If you do too many high-intensity workouts, you put yourself at risk for:

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 any medical condition or injury, check with a healthcare provider before training.

If you're doing several days of cardio each week, you would probably want only one or two workouts to fall into the high-intensity range. You can use other workouts to target different fitness areas (like endurance) and allow your body to recover. Here are some examples of how to incorporate high-intensity workouts.

One way to incorporate high-intensity workouts is to exercise at a fast pace. You can use any activity or machine for a 20-minute workout at a fast pace, but the idea is to stay in the high-intensity work zone throughout the workout. Twenty minutes is usually the recommended length, and most people wouldn't want to go much longer than that.

Tabata training is another form of high-intensity interval training in which you work very hard for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and repeat for 4 minutes. In this workout, you should be breathless and unable to talk.

Additionally, interval training is a great way to incorporate high-intensity training without doing it continuously. Alternate a hard segment (e.g., running at a fast pace for 30 to 60 seconds) with a recovery segment (e.g., walking for 1 to 2 minutes). Repeat this series for the length of the workout, usually around 20 to 30 minutes.

Moderate-Intensity Cardio

There are a variety of definitions of what moderate-intensity exercise is, but it typically falls between 70% to 80% of your maximum heart rate. That would be a level four to six on a 10-point perceived exertion scale. You are breathing harder than usual, but can carry on a conversation without much difficulty.

Schedule your day around exercise instead of trying to squeeze it in when you can. Making your workout a priority increases the chances that you will accomplish your goal. 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 also have some great benefits. For instance, even modest movement can improve your health while lowering your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Also, it takes time to build up the endurance and strength to handle challenging exercises. Moderate workouts allow you to work at a more comfortable pace, which means you may be more consistent with your program.

You also can usually get into the moderate heart rate zones with a variety of activities. Even raking leaves or shoveling snow can fall into that category if you do it vigorously enough.

Examples of Moderate Intensity Workouts

For weight management, you would likely want the majority of your cardio workouts to fall into the moderate range. Some examples include:

  • A 30- to 45-minute cardio machine workout
  • brisk walk
  • Riding a bike at a medium pace

Low-Intensity Activity

Low-intensity exercise is below 60% to 70% of your MHR, or about a level three to five 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 fact, along with the idea that it burns more fat, makes low-intensity exercise popular. But, as we've learned, working at a variety of intensities is ideal for weight loss. That doesn't mean that low-intensity exercise has no purpose, though.

It involves the long, slow activities you feel like you could do all day. Even better, it includes activities you usually enjoy, such as taking a stroll, gardening, riding a bike, or a gentle stretching routine.

Low-intensity cardio can be something you do all day long by doing an extra lap when you're shopping, taking the stairs, parking farther from the entrance, and doing more physical chores around the house. 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.

Importance of Consistent Exercise

It may seem like a no-brainer that regular exercise can help you burn fat. 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.

Benefits

Here are some benefits of consistent exercise.

  • Become more efficient: Your body becomes more efficient at delivering and extracting oxygen. Simply put, this helps your cells burn fat more efficiently.
  • Have 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.
  • Increase the number and size of mitochondria: These are the cellular power plants that provide energy inside each cell of your body.

Lift Weights to Burn Fat

Adding more muscle by lifting weights and doing other resistance exercises can also help with burning fat. 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. Here are some benefits of weight training.

Burn Calories

If you lift weights at a higher intensity, you can 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 while your body gets back to its resting state.

Keep Metabolism Going

A diet-only approach to weight loss could lower a person's resting metabolic rate by up to 20% a day. Lifting weights and maintaining muscle helps keep the metabolism up, even if you're cutting your calories.

Preserve Muscle Mass

If you are restricting calories, you risk losing muscle. Muscle is metabolically active, so when you lose it, you also lose the extra calorie burn muscles produce.

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, increase intensity, 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.

Strategies

To burn more fat when strength training, here are some strategies that you can utilize.

  • Incorporate 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.
  • 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 weight forces your body to adapt by building more lean muscle tissue to handle that extra load.
  • Use 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.

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

When it comes to burning more fat, you have to work at it. 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. Then, build on that over time. Soon you're on the way to burning more fat. It also can be beneficial to work with a registered dietitian or certified personal trainer to develop a more individualized program.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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