The so-called fat burning zone occurs when exercise is primarily fueled by body fat. It’s a belief that is based in exercise physiology, but one that is now considered a myth because it overlooks a key factor: total calories burned.
To understand how low and high intensity exercise influences weight loss, it helps to first understand how the body uses fuel during exercise.
Exercise is fueled by a mix of fat and carbohydrates. Exercise intensity changes the amount of fat and carbohydrate used by the body.
When exercise intensity is low, the body uses a greater percentage of fat to fuel muscles. As intensity increases, the body increases its use of carbohydrates. The greater the increase in exercise intensity, the greater the dependence on carbohydrates for fuel.
While the calories burned during low intensity exercise are primarily sourced from body fat, higher intensity exercise can burn more stored fat in the same amount of time because the total amount of calories burned is greater. The table below provides an example.
Fat Calories Burned
Moderate to Vigorous
*Energy expenditure (calories) based on a 45-minute workout with constant intensity
Regardless of how many calories are burned from fat, the key to weight loss is to burn more total calories than you consume. This makes higher intensity exercise a more effective option for weight loss because it not only burns more calories from fat, but it burns more total calories per exercise session.
Lower intensity exercise has its place in your workout plan, especially if you are a beginner. But don’t keep from pushing harder because you think a lower intensity workout will create a magic fat burning zone. As you become fit, start incorporating higher intensity bouts into your workouts to maximize your weight loss efforts.
A good fitness program includes three types of activity - cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and flexibility training.
Cardio: Your cardio sessions use large muscle groups for an extended period, burning the calories necessary for weight loss. At the same time, aerobic exercise works the heart, which makes it stronger and improves cardiovascular health. Choose activities that raise your heart rate and keep it elevated, such as dancing, hiking, jogging, or swimming.
Strength training: Weight machines, free weights, muscle conditioning classes, Pilates, and jump training all qualify as strength training. Some forms of yoga have also been found to increase muscular strength. Strength training burns calories, reduces muscle loss as you age, and gives your muscles a toned appearance. Incorporate strength training at least two times per week with exercises that work all major muscle groups.
Flexibility training: Activities that improve your range of motion can reduce your risk of injury and can improve your physical performance. Flexibility training can simply be stretching each muscle group after a workout, or it may already be a part of your activity such as with martial arts, yoga, or Pilates.
Find activities you enjoy.
Consistency is a major factor in your success with losing weight and keeping it off long-term. Enjoying your exercise routine impacts your ability to be consistent over the long run. If you feel there are no activities you enjoy, it’s time think outside the box. Jumping on the trampoline with your kids, or playing in an adult volleyball league count as exercise just like cardio machines and classes at the gym. If you find that you don't like the first plan you try, don't give up in frustration. Explore some new activities until you find some that you enjoy.
You must invest the time.
The American College of Sports Medicine reports that exercising more than 250 minutes per week is necessary to lose significant weight (at least 3% of body weight) while also improving the likelihood that you will keep the weight off. Below is a sample weekly exercise program that totals 315 minutes, involves all three fitness components, and includes a variety of activities.
Hiking: 60 minutes
Stationary Bike: 30 minutes
Full-body Strength Training: 20 minutes
Full-body Stretching: 10 minutes
Indoor or Outdoor Walk: 45 minutes
Modern Dance Class: 60 minutes
Elliptical Machine: 30 minutes
Full-body Strength Training: 20 minutes
Full-body Stretching: 10 minutes
Doubles Tennis: 30 minutes
Do the math.
Weight loss depends on creating a deficit between energy intake and energy expenditure. To lose body fat, you need to burn more calories through metabolism and physical activity than you ingest through food. Tracking your exercise with the MyFoodDiary Exercise Log, combined with using the food diary to track food intake, will help you balance your eating and activity to create the calorie deficit you need to reach your weight loss goal.
Muscle soreness can occur when you try a new activity, increase your exercise intensity, or perform eccentric exercises (such as running downhill or lowering a weight). It is caused by the minor damage to muscle fibers that is necessary to build muscle tissue and increase strength. Soreness sets in about 12 to 48 hours after the activity, but it should decrease within a few days. Muscle soreness is a normal part of improving fitness, but there are a few ways you can reduce it.
Ice vs. Heat
The National Institutes of Health recommends icing sore muscles for the first 24 to 72 hours to reduce pain and swelling. To make it more comfortable, use indirect ice such as an ice pack wrapped in a towel. After this time period, heat can be applied to increase blood flow and soothe the muscle.
It’s best to reduce your intensity for 1 to 2 days after feeling muscle soreness, but light activity may reduce pain and stiffness. One study found that yoga training reduced muscle soreness in women after a workout involving eccentric exercises. Also, try using a foam roller. Much like a sports massage, they increase blood flow and soothe tight muscles.
Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help reduce pain and swelling. Be sure to take the pills only as directed and avoid relying on them for your pain relief. Use these medications only after activity, once muscle soreness has begun. Taking them before or during exercise may hide pain, which can increase your risk of injury.
Adding more antioxidant-rich foods to your diet can reduce inflammation. Research shows that tart cherries have anti-inflammatory compounds that act as natural painkillers. Ginger contains gingerols that have been found to ease muscle soreness.
Research does not support the popular belief that stretching before exercise will reduce muscle soreness. It is better to focus on a warm up with repetitive movement that prepares the muscle for more intense activity, and save stretching for after your workout.
Social support is a key factor in sticking with an exercise program, and a walking group can provide the motivation you need to stay active. Use these tips to start a walking group and commit to long term exercise.
Invite new people.
Consider inviting people whom you’d like to get to know better. Ask the person you see walking in the park every morning or post an invitation at church, at a community center, or at your workplace.
Designating a core group of leaders is essential to keep your group on track. The goal for leaders is not to take responsibility away from the group, but to have a central point for information. The best scenario is to have two to three good communicators that will send out reminders, and who are a point of contact if someone needs to cancel. Having two people in this role ensures someone in-the-know will be at every walk when one leader must skip out due to vacation, sickness, or family emergencies.
Gather important information.
It’s important to gather some basic information from the group to compile and share with other members.
Phone numbers or email addresses: Make sure you know how to get in touch with members. This is important for sending schedule reminders or last minute cancellations.
Emergency contact: Be sure each person has someone you can call if an emergency occurs while you are out for your walk.
Health information: This doesn’t have to be shared with the whole group, but it’s important for the leaders to know if members have a health condition that is influenced by exercise. For example, if a member has diabetes, he or she could experience hypoglycemia during a walk.
Create a schedule.
Be realistic about how often you will meet -- two times per week, four times per week? Perhaps you set official walks on Tuesday and Thursday at 6:00 pm, but some in the group will meet informally every day. Also determine how far or how long you will walk so that new members can judge if their fitness level fits your group. You might start walking your route together, but allow some members to walk more or less depending on their needs. Or you can schedule a 20 minute walk on Monday and Wednesday evenings and a 60 minute walk on Saturday mornings.
Set some ground rules.
No one wants to be in a group that is too rigid and uninviting, but agreeing on a few ground rules in the beginning will help you reduce drama and hurt feelings later.
Keep it positive: You know how unpleasant it is to be stuck with that person who won’t stop complaining or who gossips endlessly. Agree that conversations will be positive and encouraging, and that members have the right to let each other know if it begins to steer in the other direction. (See 7 Tips for Being a Better Workout Partner).
Reminders: It’s important that everyone in the group take responsibility for his or her exercise. Decide how many messages group leaders will send out - a monthly schedule, a weekly reminder?
Make an inclement weather plan: Even the most avid exercisers may be deterred by thunderstorms, extreme heat, or ice. Will you cancel, or is there a place indoors where you can walk, such as a gymnasium or shopping mall?
Set a goal.
As you begin to improve your fitness together, consider setting some longer term goals. Raise funds for a charity and walk your first 5K together. If you share similar interests and goals, you may want your walking group to evolve into a running group, or you can meet for other activities, such as water sports or yoga.
Give your abdominal muscles the attention they deserve. Follow these tips to get a strong core and flat abs.
Types of exercises
Ab exercises have evolved from those that target one area (crunches) to those that engage multiple muscle groups (plank). Despite which type is currently trendy, both will strengthen your abs. Research sponsored by the American Council on Exercise found that the bicycle maneuver, captain’s chair, and crunch on exercise ball are the top three most effective ab exercises. That being said, abdominals rarely work alone and training them with the muscles of the lower back and lower body helps to create a strong core. Incorporate more full body ab exercises, such as high knee lifts, planks with leg lifts, and burpees.
Frequency of workouts
You should train your abdominals no differently than you train other muscles. Do ab exercises 2-3 times per week allowing 1 to 2 rest days in between workouts. Fitness professionals recommend anywhere from 10 to 20 repetitions and 2 to 3 sets of each exercise. Switch up your routine and incorporate new exercises every 4 to 6 weeks to keep your muscles challenged.
Beyond strength training
Abdominal exercises are important for a strong core, but they are just one part of a bigger picture. Cardiovascular exercise, food and drinks, and posture also play a role in your fitness and appearance. Cardio exercise helps to burn the calories required to reduce fat around your stomach and expose muscle. High sodium foods and carbonated beverages can cause water retention and bloating making the stomach appear larger. Poor posture can also cause your stomach to bulge. Pull your shoulders back and contract your abs when you feel yourself beginning to slouch.