Exercise To Reduce Fat: Fact vs. Fiction

There are several reasons why people exercise. Firstly, for enjoyment and its social element. Partaking in a favourite sport or simply going for a run or swim can leave us feeling energised and upbeat. Secondly, exercise has many proven health benefits that reach beyond just looking lean and healthy. Regular exercise has been positively linked to reduced risk of diabetes, cardiovascular heart disease and a range of other diseases and health conditions. Thirdly, for its fat burning results. Many people exercise to reduce fat, and are perhaps less concerned about the wider physical and psychological benefits.

There is so much information (and misinformation) out there on exercise regimes and which one can help you shed weight in record breaking times, but in this article I hope to clarify what types of exercise you need to perform in order to burn fat if that is your goal. The main issue is that if you are exercising regularly but not seeing the results you want then it could be that you’re not exercising in the right way to reduce fat.

It's important to mention that to reach your fat loss goals you will almost certainly need to make sustainable dietary changes. In fact changes to your diet can have a vastly greater impact on weight loss than exercise alone; that’s a topic for a different article but just keep in mind that the calories you burn off on a 30-minute run can quickly be replaced by that mid-afternoon pastry. However, there is still much you can do via physical activity to make your body composition leaner.

The Myth Of The Fat Burning Zone

The good news for many is that if you exercise to reduce fat you don’t have to spend hours slaving away to achieve your goals.  You may of heard of the fat burning zone and seen it on cardio machines such as treadmills or cross-trainers in gyms. This can be a very misleading name, and can result in people exercising sub-optimally to reduce body fat.

Your body has several biochemical processes to get energy from the proteins, fats and carbohydrates you eat, such as glycolysis, the citric acid cycle and electron transport chain. These are complicated but the idea is very simple. Let me explain. Your body turns proteins, fats and carbohydrates into something called acetyl-co A. This gets turned into adenine triphosphate (ATP), which is essentially the form of energy that our body uses.

Your body prefers to use carbohydrates to make ATP. It has evolved to use carbohydrates first (notice that natural sources of carbohydrate tend to be sweet to encourage us to consume them like fruit, berries, and honey). Your cells don't need very much oxygen to break down carbohydrate into energy. Therefore when you exercise hard (which is anaerobic exercise) and oxygen is in short supply, your body uses much more carbohydrate for energy. Conversely, your body’s cells need lots of oxygen to create ATP from burning fat, so when you undertake aerobic exercise your body will burn a higher percentage of fat to create energy.

When exercising at a low intensity you burn more fat as a percentage of the energy used, however you don’t burn many calories because the intensity is so low. Your metabolic rate doesn’t increase by much afterwards either which is more important to fat loss. When your metabolic rate increases your body continues to burn more calories over time, and the moderate intensity of the fat burning zone doesn’t kick your metabolic rate up a lot.

Essentially if you want to exercise to reduce fat it's better to exercise hard, and get your heart rate up which will increase your metabolic rate for as high as possible for up to 48 hours and help you burn many more calories overall. So let’s look at one of the best ways you can do that.

HIIT For Fat Loss

Exercising to reduce fat is really quite simple. Not easy, but simple in principle. If you increase your heart rate to near maximum or within 80% of your maximum heart rate you will increase your metabolism, potentially for up to 48 hours after you've finished exercising. This 24 to 48 hour metabolism increase is known as the 'Afterburn Effect' or Excess Post Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). During this time your body’s skeletal muscle cells are much more metabolically active. The cells need to be repaired, energy stores in the form of muscle glycogen are replenished and the cells’ mitochondria (the part that generates the energy) are primed.  This is why high intensity interval training (HIIT) is so effective for aiding fat loss.

It isn't so much the calories you burn in your training session that help fat loss, but rather the extra calories you burn up to two days after your training, providing you train correctly. HIIT is a blanket term that can be used to encompass many different types of training, for example body pump, circuits, Crossfit, boxercise etc. are all forms of HIIT. These are all just different ways to increase your heart rate to as close to max as possible.

One added benefit of HIIT is that it puts the body under stress and kick starts your metabolism to promote calorie and fat burn, but it doesn’t promote excessive cortisol production as HIIT sessions are short. Cortisol is a stress hormone, but when we exercise for too long, over train, or don’t allow ourselves sufficient rest the body can create too much cortisol. Excessive cortisol in the system can suppress your immune system, negatively impact your health, and also inhibit fat loss.

When using HIIT for fat loss it’s important to choose a form of HIIT that you enjoy. The reason being that you’ll be pushing yourself very hard, and you can expect to feel tired and sore afterwards. You’ll be more likely to give your all to each session if you genuinely enjoy the workout. So if Crossfit training isn’t for you, give a circuit training class a go.

Resistance Training: Essential Exercises To Lose Fat

Weight training is a great way to boost your fat loss, and some of the best exercises to lose fat will incorporate resistance training. These can be incorporated into your HIIT workout, once you’re comfortable with the movements. Adding resistance exercises will help you add lean muscle tissue, and this is the part of your body that is most metabolically active. So having more lean muscle will encourage your body to burn more calories and fat.

When adding resistance training into your HIIT programme it is vital you spend time learning and drilling the movements with light weights before increasing the load, ideally with a. Qualified professional. Trying to execute a movement with free weights and bad form will only lead to injury. This is something we will explore in a future post.

The Importance of A Balanced Approach

Although HIIT is great for fat loss, you don’t need to be using it as your sole method. It’s important to also have slower, less intense exercise in your weekly activity. As in many things balance is important, and you should also be led by your aspirations.

If you’re training for long distance running like a marathon then of course you need to clock up the miles at an appropriate intensity, because you need to increase your aerobic capacity and endurance. If you want to exercise to reduce fat and increase muscle mass then HIIT, especially with resistance exercises included, is ideal. Or if you’re looking for increased mobility and exercise that is pain free then swimming, yoga, and flexibility routines are for you. It’s important to have a goal and be specific.

About The Author

Nye Levett is an Exercise and nutrition specialist, personal trainer and swimming coach. He holds a BSc in Sports and Health Science from Exeter University and is the head coach at NL Wellness. He has worked with the Obesity Service for the NHS, the Royal Marines, professional sports teams, and the general public. His aim is to help people of all abilities to stay healthy, happy, and fit, with no fad diets or calorie counting.


Please Note

Some injuries can be self-treated whilst others require prompt medical attention. You should seek advice from a health professional if: the injury causes severe pain, swelling, or numbness; you can't tolerate weight on the area; the pain or dull ache of an old injury is accompanied by increased swelling or joint abnormality or instability.