This is the first of my three-part series on how to lose body fat. In this section, I’ll cover exercise strategies. The next two articles will cover nutrition and program adherence, respectively.
Anyone who’s struggled with fat loss has thought “I just need to eat less and exercise more.” Maybe it’s not that simple.
The two problems with most fat loss programs are 1) “exercising more” can lead to exhaustion, frustration, and overeating, rather than fat loss, and 2) adherence to a fat loss program can be extremely difficult to maintain long term.
So Why Exercise?
I’ve addressed the issue of exercise for fat loss before in this article. Traditional “cardio” is a poor strategy for fat loss for four reasons: the impact on fat loss is minimal when compared to caloric restriction, it’s time consuming, it may be exhausting, and it can enhance appetite. Then why exercise? Physical activity should be performed for
- hypertrophy (muscular development)
- cardiorespiratory fitness
- mental health
The three exercise strategies that offer the greatest fat loss benefits are resistance training for hypertrophy, sprinting to improve oxygen utilization, and low-intensity walking at a comfortable pace.
Resistance training as an activity has very little impact on fat loss; most of the energy for this exercise comes from creatine phosphate or carbohydrate. However, because muscle tissue is more metabolically active than body fat, more energy is required at rest to maintain a muscular body. Ultimately this will benefit the athlete hoping to achieve a daily caloric deficit.
Here’s an example: Consider a 25-year-old male, 5’10”, who weighs 185 pounds with 20% body fat. According to the Katch-McArdle formula (used when body fat percentage is known) for estimating basal metabolic rate (BMR), this person requires 1823 kcal (calories) to support the structure and functioning of the body in a completely rested state. In contrast, consider the same person at the same weight, but with 10% body fat. The estimated BMR is now 2005 kcal. The difference is not as large as some people believe, but it adds up over time.
The second important activity is sprinting. Sprinting is like resistance training in that the direct impact on fat loss during the activity is limited. Similarly, the contribution of EPOC (exercise post-oxygen consumption, or elevations in the use of oxygen after exercise) to fat loss has been exaggerated in popular media. The primary advantage of sprinting to anyone interested in fat loss is that it improves one’s capacity to utilize oxygen, which affects the body’s ability to use body fat both at rest and during exercise.
The third activity, low-intensity walking, is often minimized as a fat loss strategy because the energy cost is low. I actually view this as an advantage. In contrast to moderate-intensity endurance training (cardio), walking does not lead to exhaustion and increased appetite. In addition, the oxidative energy system, which relies on fat as a fuel source, is almost exclusively responsible for supporting low-intensity exercise; thus, the proportion of energy produced from body fat is greatest during this type of activity. Walking won’t result in rapid fat loss, but that’s not the point of exercise. The effects of walking will add up over time.
Walking for 30 to 60 minutes a day is an enjoyable way to stay active and lose fat (albeit slowly) without putting excessive demands on your body. Save the high-intensity work for resistance training and sprinting, which I’ll be covering in detail in future articles.
To summarize the exercise section of this series, for fat loss,
- keep traditional moderate-intensity endurance training to a minimum
- engage in intense but infrequent resistance training and sprinting
- participate in low-intensity activity frequently
In Part 2, I discuss dietary strategies for fat loss. You can find the link here.
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