What is the Best Way to Exercise for Fat Loss?
With over two-thirds of Australian adults overweight or obese (2017-18), it is no surprise that fat loss is one of the main reasons that we exercise. For many, the physical, emotional and social toll that obesity can cause can be overwhelming. On top of the internal stressors, healthcare, supplement and exercise marketing can be extremely provoking and oftentimes manipulative of our feelings towards our own weight. ‘Quick fix’ surgeries, supplements and training schemes have become the norm in our society. They suck people into believing that weight loss is as easy as 1, 2, 3. Though if we look at the ever-growing obesity rates in our country and around the world, it is easy to see that these common interventions are simply not working. Many ‘quick-fix’ interventions will provide individuals with substantial weight loss in the very short term (1-8 weeks). Though they very rarely, if ever, keep the weight off. This is because maintaining a healthy weight long-term is about education and consistency. Habits, be it good or bad, are formed through prolonged repetition. Creating GOOD habits requires education on how a healthy weight is achieved and maintained and then putting that knowledge to work in everyday life. As many people start exercising in an attempt to lose weight, this article will look at why we want to lose fat, what fat actually is and how we can use exercise in a sustainable manner to create and maintain a healthy weight range.
Weight loss vs fat loss
Firstly, there needs to be a distinction between weight loss and fat loss. Taken alone, weight loss is a terribly inaccurate measurement for improving health. Due to varying fluid intake, changes to our overall fluid levels lead us to experience significant day-to-day weight fluctuations. Take for example professional combat athletes such as boxers and mixed martial artists who have to weigh in for a particular weight class. These athletes can drop up to and sometimes over 10% of their body weight in the 24 hours prior to weigh-ins, before putting it all on again in a matter of hours! This shows us how quickly and significantly our body weight can shift from fluids alone. Whilst this amount of weight loss sounds impressive, it is actually incredibly taxing on the body. Staying well-hydrated is exceptionally important for physical health and losing weight through water-loss is definitely not the answer. FAT mass is what we really want to lose! Getting to and staying within a healthy body fat percentage (6-20% in men, 10-25% in women) will not only help you look and feel great, but it will also help to reduce your chance of developing type 2 diabetes, several types of cancer, heart disease and joint issues amongst other health benefits. Exercise for fat loss is what we really need, not exercise for weight loss.
"Being able to quantify progress is an important aspect of any training program."
Measuring fat loss
Being able to quantify progress is an important aspect of any training program. Whilst we can usually ‘feel’ when we have either lost or gained fat, actually measuring fat loss and your body fat percentage is a much harder task than it sounds (hence why we use the scales!). Even new-age technology such as DEXA scans has substantial reliability and consistency issues. Despite these drawbacks, to make educated guesses on how to progress your training and nutrition you do need to have some form of tracking. To cover all bases and provide as much accuracy as possible, we recommend using our 3-step tracking process. Firstly, you should weigh yourself a few times a week. Try not to look for any day-to-day changes, it is about trending towards your appropriate weight range across weeks and months. Secondly, measure yourself in key fat-storing areas, including the stomach (belly button), thighs and chest. If your measurement numbers are decreasing over time, it is likely due to changes in fat mass. Thirdly, document your visual appearance. Muscle definition is a great representation of body fat levels. The more definition you can see, the leaner you probably are. Using all 3 tools together paints a very clear picture from which you can draw accurate conclusions.
Body fat and energy balance
Adipocytes, better known as fat cells, actually have a number of key roles in the human body. They provide cushion for joints and organs, warmth and even send messages to other parts of the body. Though their bad reputation comes from the ability to store energy in the form of triglycerides (fat molecules inside fat cells). Triglycerides are formed when energy that enters the body in the form of food and drink is not used up during activity and bodily processes such as breathing and digestion. Whilst there are many factors that influence energy metabolism, there are two key behaviours that heavily influence our overall level of body fat: calorie consumption and activity.
In a country such as Australia (or any western country for that matter) where energy-dense food is so readily accessible, reducing calorie consumption can be tricky! Not impossible, just tricky. Typical strategies such as counting calories require education that isn’t necessarily taught in schools. Whilst we encourage everyone to learn about calories, macronutrients and food groups (see our other articles), it is not a strategy that can be implemented right this very second. Exercise, on the other hand, can be! Therefore, increasing energy expenditure through an increase in activity seems to be the logical first step for most individuals and that is where we shall focus.
"Participating in a decent level of physical activity every day is a great way to maintain a healthy body and a healthy mind. Whilst that is probably common knowledge to most people, statistics show that a significant amount of Australian adults do not get anywhere near enough exercise each week."
Building an Activity Base
Participating in a decent level of physical activity every day is a great way to maintain a healthy body and a healthy mind. Whilst that is probably common knowledge to most people, statistics show that a significant amount of Australian adults do not get anywhere near enough exercise each week. Call it lack of time, laziness or whatever you want to label it, I believe that it comes down to not knowing where to start.
Rather than prescribing specific exercise, I simply want you to start with easy exercise for fat loss. The reason we start with easy is to build the number one ingredient to success: consistency. Consistency is what saves you from getting caught in the yo-yo trap and ensures you are healthy for life not just the 3-weeks over summer. If you can find a routine that fits your schedule and you enjoy it, you’re halfway there!
So what do YOU find easy? Is it walking 5km? Is it jogging 3km? Is lifting weights? What is it that you could do every single day to get your activity level up? There needs to be a base level of exercise that you achieve every single day. It doesn’t have to be the same thing day-in, day-out, just a dedicated amount of time per day where you are constantly moving. Let’s start off with an hour. One hour is 1/24th or approximately 4% of your day. It is a small commitment that can make all of the difference to your health. This 1-hour of activity will become your activity backbone. It will ensure that no matter what you do with your day, you have still completed an hour’s worth of exercise.
Building Training Intensity
Now whilst walking 5km a day is a great start, it definitely isn’t the most time-efficient way to burn energy. This is because the rate of energy expenditure is directly proportionate to the exercise intensity. A simple representation of the expenditure-intensity relationship is to compare walking and running. An hour walk may burn somewhere around 200-400 calories, whilst an hour run could be somewhere between 500-800 calories. Those numbers might not be entirely accurate for you and your body, though it does highlight the fact that as intensity increases, so too does energy expenditure. For the time-poor office-worker, building up your training intensity may be the answer to efficient exercise for fat loss!
Using a heart rate monitor is an easy and accessible way to gauge your training intensity. Your heart rate is a simple yet accurate reflection of how hard your body is working. Your heart will beat faster in response to the muscles requiring a greater blood flow to aid in the transport of molecules involved in energy production. Basically this means the longer we can train at a high heart-rate, the more energy we are going to burn! Unfortunately, as you probably already know (or will quickly find out), you can’t just sit your foot on the gas all of the time. This is because as we increase the intensity, we eventually move from a predominantly aerobic energy system (nice friendly breathing) to an anaerobic energy system (intense breathing). During this process, our body moves from burning fat (a slow, yet efficient process) to burning carbohydrate (fast, inefficient and limited) to keep up with the rise in energy demand. This does not mean that staying at a low-intensity is better for burning BODY-FAT by any means! Try to think of body-fat as the reserve energy that replenishes your energy systems after a workout. If we burn enough energy through aerobic or anaerobic training during our workout, it will lead to a reduction in body-fat. This means that we can use a variety of different training styles such as steady-state jogging, high-intensity intervals and even sprint intervals to burn energy as long as we end up with a similar amount of work across the session.
It is important to note that whilst energy-expenditure increases in response to training intensity, so too does fatigue. The harder you train, the longer the recovery time required. It is important to find a balance between training hard and allowing your body to rejuvenate. It may be wise to begin your training journey by building up your low-intensity training volume before moving into higher-intensity activities. This could mean focusing on maintaining a heart rate around 60-70% of your max heart rate for the majority of your session. On top of creating a strong fitness base, training at a moderate intensity can help you avoid burning out both physically and mentally. For more experienced trainers that already have a strong fitness base, it can be wise to still vary your training intensity and avoid going all-out every single day. Low-intensity sessions can be fantastic for aiding recovery between high-intensity days and still allow you to spend a decent amount of energy.
The single worst thing you can do as you increase your level of exercise is to burn yourself out. It is too common for people to dive in (with good intentions) and come out sick, injured and unmotivated."
Building Training Volume
Alternatively, if you are not necessarily pressed for time or you are ready to make fat-loss your number one priority, you can increase your exercise volume. In other words, rather than increasing the intensity of your exercise, you could simply increase the time you spend exercising! This can be ideal for those of you who are just beginning your training and would prefer to start off with a low-intensity mode of exercise such as walking. Begin with one hour a day and slowly transition towards two hours. As your fitness progresses you can start to shift a portion of your time towards a higher intensity exercise modality such as weight training or running. Again, that advice is aimed at those who are literally starting from scratch! If you already have a decent fitness base you can jump into whatever type of training you like as long as you aren’t making an enormous leap! As a general rule, it is best to avoid increasing exercise output by over 20% from one week to the next. Make small increases week-in, week-out and you will be able to keep yourself on track.
Volume X Intensity
If your goal is to exercise for fat loss, the single worst thing you can do as you increase your level of exercise is to burn yourself out. It is too common for people to dive in (with good intentions) and come out sick, injured and unmotivated. Burn-out is usually the result of a sharp increase in both exercise volume and exercise intensity. Going from barely exercising outside of your walk from the car to your workplace to entering a 5-day a week HIIT cycle is not going to work for most people. Your body just can’t recover appropriately at the beginning of your training! No, you do not have to build up by 10 minutes week by week, just start with 1-3 higher intensity sessions per week if that’s what you’re into. Give your body some time to adapt to the stress that is being placed upon it. As a general rule try to avoid increasing both intensity AND volume week to week. Either build on the time that you exercise OR the intensity that you are training at, not both!
Consistency: Long Term Vs Quick Fix
Want to know the secret to keeping the weight off? Build consistency! The biggest issue that comes with your typical 5-8 week intense exercise program is that it makes you believe that there is a finish line. Health and fitness is a lifetime commitment. We need to make sure that we develop a routine that is going to be achievable long-term. 45 minutes of moderate exercise every day is going to do a lot more for you than a 21-day intensive Bootcamp once a year. Focus on building something that actually fits into your life year-round and you will have no issues staying in tip-top shape. That is not to say that you cant ramp your training up for a wedding or a holiday, there just needs to be a fallback plan. When your motivation is low and you are struggling for extrinsic rewards, what will you do? Build an activity backbone and you will never have to worry. Consistent exercise for fat loss has been proven to be effective.
"If you eat more of these low-energy-density foods, you will have less room and less time for crap. Pretty simple. Your body gets hungry for a reason and it is up to you to satisfy that hunger with appropriate food."
You didn’t think that I was going to write an article without any mention of nutrition, did you?
No matter the goal, nutrition is always going to play a major role in your physical results. As the old saying goes, you will never out-train a bad diet. Meaning no amount of activity is going to help you lose fat if you are in a calorie surplus. It’s just facts. It is important to have the same outlook on nutrition as you do with training, no shortcuts or quick fixes, simply build consistency in a way that works for you.
One strategy that I have personally used with a lot of success is the ‘eat-more’ method. It is a puzzling name for a simple concept. I want you to eat more protein (meat, dairy, poultry, protein shakes, bars, seeds, etc) and more fibre (fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grains etc). If you eat more of these low-energy-density foods, you will have less room and less time for crap. Pretty simple. Your body gets hungry for a reason and it is up to you to satisfy that hunger with appropriate food. Sticking to a (mostly) whole-food diet will usually result in appropriate calorie intake and will provide you with sufficient protein and micronutrients. Tick.
Another strategy that has grown in popularity over the last decade is calorie counting. If you are really new to the concept of calories and macronutrients, I think that counting calories can be an exceptional educational tool. It will open your eyes to the different benefits and drawbacks of the various food groups and allow you to see food from a ‘numbers’ point of view. It will teach you to be mindful of what you are eating and allow you to make educated guesses on portions and overall daily intake. Of course, it is vitally important that you only ever count calories as a GUIDE! It should never be a prescription. There is actually exceptional variability in the number of calories found in food and the numbers found on the internet or on the packaging are simply an average. Add that to the variability created by the differences in your daily activity and you can see that the calculations are never going to be entirely accurate. A better option (in my humble opinion) is to create a calorie ballpark where you give yourself a 500 calorie range to fall within. This allows you to vary your eating based on hunger and circumstances without ever straying too far from the centre. Consistency over perfection!
In conclusion, training for fat-loss is all about building a sustainable level of exercise that in partnership with a decent diet allows you to maintain a healthy weight. Always do your best to avoid extremes and be sure to know that you always have a choice. There is no one size fits all for health and fitness!
Train hard, train smart and always have fun.