Burning fat is a big priority for people, but there are a lot of misconceptions about how to burn the most fat during exercise. Yes, a “fat burning zone” does exist but it’s misinterpreted. The fat burning zone is a concept that when exercising at lower intensities for longer periods of time, you will burn more fat than glycogen at higher intensities. To further explain, during exercise your body uses energy from two places: fat and glycogen stores. Glycogen is stored carbohydrates (converted sugars) in your muscles and liver. So yes, your body does use more fat as fuel during lower intensity exercise but you are also burning calories at a slower rate. You are going to have to walk all day long to burn up enough calories to make a difference if you are trying to lose weight. Bottom line—exercising in your “fat burning zone” is not the answer to losing fat.
Because working out at different intensities has different consequences on your body, let’s talk a look at the different training zones.
Ease into each workout by warming up first. At Get Healthy U, we often refer to the warm-up as a “dress rehearsal” for your workout. If you’re running, start by walking or jogging to warm up. If you’re doing a HIIT workout with plyometrics, start out with some light jumping jacks, squats, or other bodyweight movements.
What It Feels Like: Your warm-up zone matters. This is where you prepare your cardio-respiratory system along with your joints and connective tissue to exercise harder. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of skipping a warm-up before the main event.
Benefits: Particularly as we age, the warm-up becomes a necessary part of preparing your body and heart for the workout. The warm-up zone:
- Mobilizes your joints
- Activates and prepares your muscles
- Prevents injury during your workout
- Promotes better blood flow and circulation
- Prepares you mentally for your workout
Just beyond your warm-up is what is often referred to Zone 2 or your fat-burning zone. This is the lowest heart rate of all the exercise zones, and yes, it’s great for burning fat, but just as I stated above, not the most effective way to lost fat.
What It Feels Like: In the fat-burning zone, you’re working “comfortably.” You might sweat a little and breathe harder than usual, but you should feel as if you can sustain this activity for a long time. Think walking the dog or even some slow, steady-state work on a cardio machine. You will be able to breathe some through your nose and some through your mouth. When you are in the Fat Burning Zone you are still able to carry on a conversation while at work.
Benefits: Because you feel pretty good in this zone, you can stay here a while. This means that you can go for a long time and burn fat. However, this is not your best zone for burning up enough calories to make a difference in your physical fitness and you don’t get the benefit of any afterburn! Don’t get me wrong, for beginners; this is a great place to start. But the myth that the fat burning zone is the best place to lose fat is just that—a myth.
Related: 10-Minute Workout To Blast Fat
What It Feels Like: The next level of exercise occurs is your aerobic zone, sometimes called Zone 3. This zone will have you working hard enough to feel the need to breathe mostly through your mouth; referred to as “comfortably hard.” You will be able to talk during this zone, but only in short phrases or words. Carrying on a full-blown conversation will not happen.
Benefits: The calories burned in the Aerobic Zone are more of an even split between your fat stores and the sugar that is readily available. You will burn some of each. Though you are not burning as many fat calories as a percentage, you will be burning more calories overall. Plus, working in the aerobic zone really gets your heart pumping, so it’s great for keeping your heart healthy.
What It Feels Like To Cross Over Your Anaerobic Threshold: This is often referred to as Zone 4 and/or 5. When you are working in anaerobic territory you are panting, laboring your breath, unable to talk and reaching a maximum heart rate. It feels like an all-out sprint. It is impossible to spend much time here—generally less than a minute. You usually spend closer to 20-30 seconds at a time here.
Benefits: The obvious downside to the anaerobic zone is the limited time you can spend in it. 30-seconds isn’t much of a workout. However, that is not the purpose of this zone. You use this for interval training and the benefits are actually huge. A few short anaerobic intervals (like those you would find in HIIT training) can make bigger changes to your fitness level than anything else you do. Anaerobic intervals push your fat and aerobic zones to be bigger and zap tons of calories in record time. This zone reaps the benefit of burning calories in your body long after the workout is finished. That’s where the afterburn affect kicks in—also known as EPOC. Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (E.P.O.C) means that after a hard high intensity workout with high heart rates, your body will continue to burn more calories than it would after a lower impact, steady state exercise, such as walking or jogging.
What Is The Best Way To Burn Fat?
So what’s the best zone to work in? Ever had one of those trick multiple choice questions on a test where the answer is “all of the above?” You guessed it—all of them! Just like working all of your different muscles makes for a more balanced and well-rounded body, working in different training zones gives you a more balanced level of fitness overall: one that helps you burn fat, calories, and also keeps your heart healthy.
Plan for 2 days a week of interval (anaerobic) training, 1 or 2 Aerobic Zone days and plenty of fat burning in between. The Fat Burning zone is what I consider an “active rest” between harder workouts. So walk, do some yoga and be in your happy place while you move! The Aerobic Zone burns lots of calories and teaches your body endurance. When you practice endurance, you gain more endurance and future workouts become less taxing. And of course the Anaerobic Zone is setting you up to burn more calories. It’s your metabolism’s little helper.
Here is a chart from a study done by the folks at www.builtlean.com that helps outline the different benefits we just went over of each training zone. Here’s the breakdown from 30 minutes of exercise for a low vs. high intensity group.
So go forth and tackle those zones! Listen to your body each day and explore your ability to try different kinds of training. More than anything, your body will respond to variety. The best way to burn fat and keep your body healthy is to work smarter, by understanding your zones.