With a few more pounds around our midsections thanks to the holidays, weight loss is a hot topic in January. And while many people start the new year with a “new” shortcut to shed pounds by Spring Break, smart athletes understand that a wise combination of nutrition and exercise will melt away those pounds. But even the most seasoned athletes can fall prey to myths about weight loss and the exercise/nutrition combo. To keep you cruising down the path to a stronger and leaner you, let’s bust apart the common myths that crop up every year.
Myth #1: Low-intensity exercise burns fat faster
This “fat burning zone” notion originated as a simple misunderstanding of exercise physiology and escalated into a misguided fitness movement. When you’re exercising at a low intensity (moderate walking or easy cycling, for example), the majority of the energy you’re burning comes from fat. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem is, you’re not burning much energy in the first place. As you increase your pace, a higher percentage of your energy comes from carbohydrate, but the absolute amount of fat you’re burning, and the total number of calories you’re burning, go up as well. Put simply: a harder workout burn more fat and more total calories.
Even more important than the caloric expenditure is what moderate- to high-intensity exercise does for your fitness and health. When exercise is strenuous enough that it challenges your aerobic system, your body adapts and build bigger and more plentiful mitochondria in your muscles. These are the powerplants that burn carbohydrate, and drumroll please… fat. When they’re bigger and more plentiful, they’re able to supply you with more energy before you reach lactate threshold. What does that have to do with weight loss? Well, greater fitness gives you more furnaces to burn more calories, and the endurance to exercise long enough and fast enough to incinerate a significant chunk of energy with each session. So, forget low-intensity, “fat-burning-zone” exercises and stick with your interval workouts; the fat will come off and your performance will improve at the same time.
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Myth #2: Exercising on an empty stomach burns more fat.
There is technically some truth to this, but it’s not a smart way to train or try to lose weight. The problem here is that without adequate food in your system, the quality of your training session falls so dramatically that you won’t burn much energy before you grind to a halt from running out of gas. You’re burning a higher percentage of fat, but you’re going too slow to make any progress toward either your fitness or weight loss goals. For your exercise session to be effective, you have to have the energy to get out there and perform.
What about training with low carbohydrate stores or low carbohydrate availability (the ‘train low’ idea)? Read the following article for a lot more information about this training method: Which is better: Training with High or Low Carbohydrate Stores?
If you still want to cut back on your calories, shift the harder portions of your workouts to the beginning of the training session. You still want to get a good warmup first (10 minutes at least), but then jump right into the intervals or other high-intensity work. That way, if you start to fade before the training session is over, you’ve already completed the work that’s most important for keeping you moving toward your goals.
Bonus Tip: Make intervals longer, not harder
People are sometimes tempted to go extra hard during interval workouts when they feel like they have extra weight to lose. We’d rather see you add a few minutes to the interval – extend a 10-minute interval to 12 or 15 – instead. The reason is that the intensity of an interval determines which energy system you’re primarily targeting, whereas the duration of an interval addresses the amount of energy (ie. carbs and fat) you’re using to power that system. If you’re doing intervals just below your maximum sustainable pace, increasing the intensity changes the intervals’ impact on your training. Making the interval longer allows you to burn more calories while keeping your training focused on your long-term fitness and performance goals.