How Best to Burn Fat Exercising

cycling to exercise

We all sometimes want to get rid of the extra fat we have on our bodies and we have probably heard a lot over the years about the ‘fat burning zone’. But the best way to burn fat?

This is all about the different heart rates we achieve when working out and the impact that has on the calories we burn. Let’s start with understanding these different heart rate zones.

What is Maximum Heart Rate?

There are four different heart rate zones when it comes to exercise and we express them as a percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR). We start with low intensity which is defined as 60-70% of your MHR, you may experience this when you are warming up or doing light cardio. Then there is moderate intensity, 70-80% of your MHR, you will be in this zone when you are working hard, but can still talk.

High intensity exercise is 80-90% of your MHR, this will be a hard cardio workout when you will find it difficult to speak and finally there is maximum effort,90-100% of your MHR. This latter zone is something only really experienced by advanced athletes or professional sportspeople.

The Fat Burning Zone

Many people get surprised that the low intensity zone is often referred to as the fat burning zone. This is because when you work at a low intensity your body relies on fat for fuel. But that has led to a misconception that to burn fat you should keep things at this low intensity.

Low intensity does burn a higher percentage of calories from fat, but if you work at a higher intensity you will burn a greater amount of overall calories. Let’s examine the science behind this burning of fat.

The Body, Carbs and Fat

The body gets the energy it needs from fat, carbs and protein. Protein however is primarily used to help repair the muscles after exercise, whilst fat and carbs are the body’s prime source of fuel.

The body will draw on these fuel supplies whilst we are working out, but which one they use depends on what you are doing. As the fat burning zone is at the lower level of intensity, it is true that in this type of exercise your body will be using more fat for energy. In higher intensity work outs the body turns to carbs for the energy it needs.

But, and this is the important bit, if you want to lose weight then you need to burn more calories than the calories you consume. To do this you need to work hard during your workouts. Remember, even if you are just sitting down you will be burning calories, but you wouldn’t plan on sitting more to lose weight!

So with this understanding of how we burn fat and carbs what sort of cardio exercise should we ve doing each week?

Cardio - The Mixed Approach

There are loads of cardio exercises that you can do that essentially work by getting your heart rate up into one of the zones we talked about earlier. There are machines you can use including treadmills and elliptical trainers which will help get you into the right zone and there’s simply going for a run or doing jacks or burpees.

The advice now seems to be that creating a programme of different intensity workouts can be really beneficial. Firstly a mix of activities will stimulate all of your energy systems, prevent you from getting an injury and finally also provide you with variety, which is essential in keeping you motivated and working out.

Mix of Low, Medium and High Intensity Workouts

So each week it’s a good idea to work out by mixing up the  three different intensity zones. If we adopt this mix idea then if you are working out each week and want to lose some weight, as well as improve your fitness, then you will be looking at 1-2 workouts each week that are high intensity. This is where your heart rate should be at 80-90 % MHR, in other words you will be too breathless to talk for long and you will certainly feel challenged. We wouldn’t recommend this for beginners or if you have any underlying health condition. If you are in the latter category then do consult your doctor first.

Examples of high intensity workouts include a 20 minute workout at a fast pace. A popular thing to do now is to create interval training where you work at high intensity but create intervals. So for example you run hard for 30-60 seconds, then walk for 1-2 minutes, then continue this for 20-30 minutes. You will sometimes see his referred to as the 30-60-90 workout.

Alongside this high intensity try also to exercise at medium intensity This will be where your MHR is between 70-80%. Unlike the high intensity, in this level of exercise, you should be able to carry on some form of conversation. Examples of this would include 30-45 minutes on a cardio machine like a treadmill, elliptical or stationary bike.

Low intensity workouts, where you are working 60-70% of your MHR, will involve you using the same machines as in the other workouts but at a lower level. Other examples of low intensity workouts include swimming or  light strength training.

Example of Mixed Cardio Workout

Depending on your fitness and the time constraints you have over a 6 day period a mixed cardio programme could be a follows.

Day 1 - Could be high intensity training for 20-30 minutes on a bike or treadmill

Day 2 - 45-60 minutes moderate intensity on the same equipment or fast walking

Day 3 - Could be weight training at low moderate intensity

Day 4 - 30-60 minutes moderate treadmill workout

Day 5 - 30-40 minutes at moderate intensity on a cardio machine

Day 6 - 30-60 minutes low to moderate intensity walking or cycling.

This way over a 6 day period you are working your body at different MHR levels, your body will therefore be burning both fat and carbs.

Key Points to Remember

The plan as outlined above would not be for a beginner. So if you are starting out then start with beginner cardio workouts and build up to this.

Do remember to warm up before you exercise and cool down and stretch properly. Also keep drinking water during all exercise and  stay hydrated.

By Ian Duncan

PT Courses