Updated: Oct 19, 2020
First, when we say we want to lose weight, we mostly mean we want to lose fat.
In order to understand what to do to burn fat, we first need to understand how our bodies use and store fat.
NO SERIOUSLY, WE DO. You do too.
You and I both know we’re easily swayed by those click bait headlines that promise we will “torch 1000 calories in one workout!”
But sadly, there is no single workout program, food, or supplement that guarantees fat burning.
(Look, I wish that were true too.)
THE FUNCTION OF FAT
Yeah, it actually does some important shit.
Fat serves a key role in the structure and flexibility of cell membranes, helping to regulate substance movement
Fat helps the body absorb vitamin A, vitamin D and vitamin E.
Fat helps keep you warm and protect organs
Some types of fat (known as eicosanoids) do specialized hormone signaling, affecting many bodily systems, most notably in regards to inflammation and immune function.
As you can see, fat isn’t a bad thing.
It’s “excessive fat” that we are concerned with when it’s at levels that may be unhealthy or unwanted.
There are two kinds of fat:
Subcutaneous - just under the skin; the fat you see
Visceral - around vital organs; more dangerous
Fat is primarily stored in cells called adipocytes. Depending on supply and demand for energy, these adipocyte storage cells will either
take fat FROM the bloodstream and store it, or
release fat back INTO the bloodstream to be used as energy ← we want that one!
After you eat a meal, energy is readily available, especially in the form of carbohydrates. When energy supply is high, the hormone insulin keeps the fatty acids inside the adipocyte - meaning fat isn’t readily burned.
But when in a caloric deficit, or after a few hours of fasting, or especially during exercise, a process called lipolysis occurs, which is when the adipocytes can release the fat into your bloodstream and into the muscles to be used as fuel.
WOOHOO, THAT’S THE TICKET!
When people ask how they can lose weight, what we really want to understand is how to use fat as an efficient energy supply.
BURN, BABY, BURN
Fat holds a lot of energy per gram. Of note, fat yields more than two times the calories (9 calories) per gram than carbohydrates (4 calories/gram).
Fun Fact: One estimation suggests that a lean adult man stores about 131,000 calories in fat in his body (Horowitz & Klein, 2000). That is enough energy to sustain life for the average person for approximately 65 days.
Therefore, we can use it to fuel our workouts!
And that’s why writers can get away with headlines like, “Melt Fat Away with This One Superior Workout Method!”
So let’s break THAT down, shall we?
Exercise intensity has a great impact on fat oxidation.
And here’s something we don’t always realize: Fat oxidation occurs most efficiently during low to moderate-intensity exercise.
This is your long walks or runs, your long swim, your bike ride. This is exercise at a level you can sustain for 30 minutes or more. At this intensity, the fat you use is from fatty acids circulating in the blood.
When you increase your intensity to a moderate level, the fat you use is mostly from fat that is stored. This is exercise that’s pushing you a bit further past your comfort zone.
At high exercise intensities, total fat oxidation is reduced to levels lower than that of moderate intensity (Horowitz and Klein, 2000). Higher-intensity exercise requires carbohydrates to meet the high energy demands.
This information would have us believe the long, slow runs are best for fat loss. That is only partly true. Those long, slow runs do indeed use fat. But high-intensity workouts disturb the working muscle cells' homeostasis to such a great degree that the recovery process requires more energy too, and guess what is utilized in that difficult, long recovery process? Fat.
In other words, no matter how you slice it, fat will be burned - so long as you aren’t continually feeding your face!
NOM NOM **burrrrrp*
Speaking of feeding your face….. Exercise alone does not guarantee fat loss. You must also consume fewer calories than your body burns.
Your body will always use readily-available carbohydrates first, so if you’re overeating and if you’re not in a caloric deficit, your body has no incentive to burn excess fat.
Think of it this way:
If you constantly have easy-to-prepare convenience foods at the ready, you have less incentive to plan, shop for, prep, and cook healthy meals, right?
Your body is like that. It’ll use what’s readily available - those high-calorie meals you continually provide it with!
An effective fat-burning workout program makes little sense if not accompanied by mindful nutrition that complements that goal.
EXERCISE MAKES YOUR BODY BAD-ASS
After you’ve been exercising for several weeks and months, your body makes other adaptations to become more efficient at burning fat.
Exercise demands trigger your body to increase the number of blood vessels within muscles and increase the density of mitochondria, two things that make your body more efficient at getting the fat into your muscles where it can be used during your workouts.
These adaptations only occur, however, if you exercise on a regular basis!
“Here and there” exercise is not a bad thing (I’m a big fan of “it all counts”) but it’s inadequate if you’re looking for big results. Your body doesn’t readily do all these things above in a one-off workout.
Trained people (people who have been exercising regularly) utilize fat more efficiently than untrained people.
YOUR FAT-BURNING PROGRAM (Finally, jeepers.)
Forget trying to maximize fat burning in a single workout. You’re going for the big picture here - building a body that is an efficient, fat-burning machine.
To best do that, your fat-burning workout program should include:
challenging exercise intervals (sprints, short hard bursts, jumping jacks)
weight training (squats, push-ups, bench press)
endurance training (walking, biking, running)
Next, your workouts should become increasingly more challenging.
If you do 3 sets of 10 now, you’ll want to do 4 sets of 10 in a few weeks as you become stronger.
If you walk 15 minutes a day now, increase that to 30 minutes a day by next month.
When time is an issue, increase difficulty, resistance or intensity instead. (You can’t increase the # of minutes you run forever - unless you’re in ultra-marathons - but you can increase the difficulty by incorporating sprints, different pacing, cross-training, etc)
This is how you continually challenge your body to adapt and grow in a safe, progressive way.
You’ll also want to do low to moderate-intensity exercise (such as walking and light movement) on “off days” in order to enhance caloric deficit and support muscle adaptations between training days. Think of this as restorative.
In fact, do as much of that as you can.
In order to burn fat and lose weight, you need to eat less than you burn and include high and low-intensity workouts in your fitness program.
"Oh, do you mean, like, the 30 minutes per day workout requirement in the game?"
It’s not a random suggestion.
It’s the cumulative adaptations in your body that turn you into a lean, mean, fat-burning machine!