There’s only one way to reduce body fat: Somehow, some way, you must create a calorie deficit. But oversimplified thinking about calorie-counting diets or calorie-consuming exercise isn’t the way to accomplish that. Instead, by far the most effective approach is emphasizing optimal nutrition in combination with improved fitness to build metabolism and encourage the body to burn more calories even while at rest.
Fitness plays a huge role. You might think this sounds like common sense, but in recent weight-loss debates, the merits of exercise have been called into question. There are two major reasons why. The first is that some people exercise a lot but still don’t lose weight. Clinical researchers have found that a fixed amount of exercise doesn’t lead to the same amount of weight loss in all individuals. Initially, this may seem like confirmation that exercise is not effective for weight loss after all or that there’s a difference in each person’s biological ability to lose fat.
Further studies revealed the truth: When some people started exercising, they ate more. Researchers call them “compensators.” Some compensators ate more because exercise increased their physical appetite. In other cases, it was purely psychological: The compensators believed that after hitting the gym and working up a sweat, they deserved to eat more.
The second reason is that conventional aerobic exercise doesn’t burn as many calories as most people think. Typically, light to moderate cardio such as brisk walking or jogging burns 5 to 10 calories per minute or less. In a 30-minute workout, that’s only 150 to 300 calories. Some people find that depressing. They thought for sure they were burning 500, 600, even 800 calories! Then they think about the large number of calories in food and imagine how easy it would be to put those 300 calories right back in their mouths at the next meal or snack. All it would take is 2 ounces of chocolate, two beers or one slice of pepperoni pizza.
In a sense, they’re right. Unless you consciously monitor food intake, it can be tough to burn enough calories to create a sufficient deficit. On the other hand, to assert that “exercise doesn’t work” because it happens that many people follow exercising with overeating (or simply eating too much of the wrong things) is ridiculous.
When it comes to weight loss, caloric intake does matter — put too much of anything in your body and it will halt your weight-loss efforts — but calorie cutting alone is not a particularly effective or sustainable approach.
First, focusing excessively on caloric intake can discourage you from eating enough of the right things: healthy fats, proteins, vegetables and legumes. Fail to provide enough calories and nutrition to support your body’s basic needs, and you can actually lower your metabolism, encouraging your body to put on even more weight over time. If you want to lose weight and keep it off, then you have to emphasize good nutrition first, making sure that the quality of the calories you eat is high and that you are eating enough of the right things to boost your body’s energy, vitality and metabolism.
Second, you need to focus equally on the calorie-burning side of the equation, boosting your metabolic rate and building muscle through a well-designed exercise or activity program.
I call this approach “e-max,” which is simply our shorthand for “maximizing 24-hour energy expenditure.” The advantage of e-max is that you don’t just lose weight, you get stronger, fitter, and you improve your muscle-to-fat ratio in the bargain.
The 4 Factors of E-Max
I’m going to explain how to increase your total calorie expenditure by focusing primarily on two types of formal exercise: weight training and cardio. That, plus a few other neat tricks, will get you burning more calories around the clock. But first, let’s look at the bigger picture by reviewing the four major e-max factors: expenditure, efficiency, enjoyability and expandability.
1. The Expenditure Factor
The simple, proven fact of body-fat reduction is that if all else remains equal and you burn more calories, you’ll lose more body fat. This makes total daily energy expenditure the most critical of the four factors.
There’s been a great deal of hype in recent years on what type of stored fuel your body burns — fat or carbohydrate — during various types of activity. In my view, there’s not much point in worrying about the type of fuel burned, how it’s burned or when you burn it because, in practical terms, it just doesn’t have much effect on your end results. What matters is overall energy expenditure.
While low-intensity exercise burns more fat during the workout, it doesn’t burn as many total calories. When you exercise at a higher intensity, you burn more carbohydrates than fat for fuel during the workout, but you burn far more calories and, therefore, more fat overall.
Fat oxidation does matter, but if you burn more carbohydrates during your workout, your body compensates over 24 hours and burns more fat later in the day, so it appears to be a wash. At the end of the day, all the calories you burned might best be considered together as one big pool of energy. The goal is to burn as many calories as you can all day long — and keep that up consistently over time.
2. The Efficiency Factor
The most efficient workout is the one that burns the most calories per unit of time. The more you’re pressed for time, the more important efficiency will be for you. While the type and intensity of exercise you choose is a matter of personal preference and fitness level, choosing exclusively low-intensity exercise will require you to exercise with much greater frequency or duration, and it will also take you longer to reach the same goal.
You can increase efficiency by gradually progressing into slightly more challenging forms of exercise. Taking slow walks for an hour every day will go a long way toward your body-fat-reduction goals. But what if you gradually started walking at a faster pace so you improved your fitness level and burned more calories? What if you did some of your walking up hills? What if you added resistance, like a weighted vest? What if you gradually increased from slow to moderate, then finally to higher-intensity cardio? All physical activity burns calories, but increasing your efficiency is how you get better results for every minute you spend training. Regardless of how much intensity you are ready for now, steadily building up your ability to exercise more intensely (and thus, more efficiently) is an important element of optimal weight loss.
3. The Enjoyability Factor
Sometimes fun hobbies can become your biggest calorie burners. If you can find something that is effective, efficient and enjoyable — such as mountain biking or playing in an adult soccer league — you’ll have the best of all worlds.
A program can be highly effective and efficient, but if it doesn’t suit your disposition or if it’s too extreme to adopt as part of your lifestyle, then it will fail you in the long run. Successful weight loss always involves some work, but for many people, the line between work and play becomes blurred because they enjoy their training so much. In some cases, the enjoyment even turns into passion.
The great thing is, the more you like doing a particular activity, the longer and more frequently you are likely to do it, and the better (more efficient) you are likely to become at performing it. So whether it’s weight training, dancing, hiking, climbing, yoga or playing a sport, make a point of finding one or more activities that you authentically enjoy.
4. The Expandability Factor
Expandability describes the principle of progression. Progression means that a workout that may be hard now will eventually get easier as your body adapts and you get in better shape. As your strength, endurance and fitness levels increase, you need to challenge yourself and gradually expand into more advanced workouts if you want to keep making progress.
All good training programs allow for progression or expansion through as many variables as possible. To break a progress plateau or accelerate your results, you can progressively increase the intensity, frequency or duration of your workouts, because total calories burned will be a product of these three variables.
It’s important, as noted, to start at your own level and build up slowly. As a beginner, it’s tempting to admire the body of an athlete or fitness model and copy his or her workout without regard to your own capacity. Unfortunately, that kind of overenthusiasm could lead to burnout or injury and is unlikely to produce sustainable results.
If you keep asking yourself, “How do I get my body to burn more calories?” you’ll be headed down the right path. If you’re busy, you must ask, “How do I burn more calories in less time?” If you’ve had problems sticking with a program, then you ask, “How do I burn more calories while having fun doing it so it doesn’t seem like work?” For tips on coming up with answers to those questions, see “The 6 Points of Energy Expenditure” below.
Three days per week of cardio, in conjunction with three days per week of strength training and a conservative reduction in calories (while emphasizing optimal nutrition), is a great way to get started on your weight-loss goal. Once you’ve established a fitness base, if you want to burn more calories, accelerate your results or break a fat-loss plateau, increase your cardio frequency to four to six days per week, time permitting. If you decide to increase your training frequency, limit the higher-intensity forms of cardio to three days a week, and use lower or moderate cardio on the other days to prevent injury, overtraining or mental burnout.
If you’re a “gadget geek,” then try fitness tools such as heart-rate monitors, calorie counters and associated software to tally up your energy expended. But remember: The best way to tell if you’re burning enough calories is to look at your results. Is your body fat decreasing or not? If not, you need to reestablish an energy deficit using one side of the equation or the other: Take in fewer elective calories (remember, you must always eat enough high-quality calories to maintain your metabolism and meet your nutritional needs) or burn more.
Many people believe that if they can’t do it all — full-out exercise and a perfect diet — they might as well do nothing. My advice is, as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, wherever you are, right now.”
If you can’t do a certain type of exercise, do something else. If you can’t do much now, start slowly and add more later. If you can’t exercise at all, put the emphasis on improving your nutrition, restricting your less-healthy food intake and right-sizing your portions. Stick with it and you’ll begin losing weight. And before long, you may start feeling healthy and energetic enough to start exercising.
With an empowered attitude and adherence to the no-nonsense approach described above, anything is possible. You can achieve your ideal weight — no matter your present circumstances. You just have to start where you are.
The 6 Points of Energy Expenditure
Here’s some good news: There are a total of six ways to increase your energy expenditure each day. Even better, you can influence every one of them, sometimes in a big way. The key to increasing your metabolism and burning more calories is to break down your total daily energy expenditure into each of its individual parts, and then rev up each area to the highest degree possible.
1. Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
Resting metabolic rate, or RMR, is the amount of energy you use just for essential body functions. Your RMR is the largest component of your daily energy expenditure, representing 60 to 75 percent of the total calories you burn every day. Increasing the number of calories you burn at rest will have a huge impact on your body-fat level over time.
The long-term effect of cardio on RMR is still being researched, but there are two things we know for sure: First, you can temporarily elevate your RMR with intense cardio, as well as strength training. Second, your RMR is directly related to the amount of muscle you have. If you lose muscle from extreme dieting, then your RMR will decrease. If you gain muscle from supportive nutrition and weight training, then your RMR will increase, making it easier to maintain your ideal weight.
2. Weight Training
Many people avoid weight training because they believe it has nothing to do with fat loss. It does. Many women avoid weight training because they think it will make them bulky. It doesn’t. Weight training has the potential to burn as many calories as cardio while simultaneously revving up two other points of energy expenditure: RMR (through increased lean body mass) and postworkout metabolic rate.
Weight training is not simply for building muscle and getting stronger; you also create a hormonal environment that tells your body to hold on to lean tissue while you burn off fat.
Effective weight training can burn seven to nine calories per minute and more, even when you count the rest intervals. If your primary goal is fat loss and your time is limited, then full-body workouts with supersets (two exercises performed consecutively without rest in between) will always be one of your best choices to stimulate metabolism and fat-burning hormones.
When you focus on total calories burned and recognize the impact of weight training on lean muscle, you’ll realize that weight training may be the most important but underappreciated and neglected type of exercise for burning body fat.
3. Cardio Training
Cardio training is another excellent way to burn calories and reduce body fat. As long as your food intake stays the same, there will be a direct relationship between the volume of cardio you do and the amount of fat you lose.
The number of calories you burn during cardio varies based on intensity, duration and frequency. As noted, what type of cardio exercise you choose to do depends on your fitness level and personal preference: You can work continually at a steady pace for a long period, or in intermittent bouts at a higher intensity separated by bouts of rest or lower-intensity work.
When you’re first starting out, begin with low- to moderate-intensity training and build up your duration gradually until you reach these optimal time frames. If the best you can manage is 10 minutes on your first workout, that’s great. Gradually increase your duration as your fitness level increases.
Exercise physiologists and weight-loss experts have deduced that there’s a minimum threshold of cardio necessary for optimizing your rate of fat loss. That amount is usually three days per week at 30 minutes with sufficient intensity to burn at least 300 calories a session.
Steady cardio sessions of approximately 45 minutes at moderate intensities or 20- to 30-minute sessions at high intensities can burn very significant amounts of energy. If the intensity is high enough, some calories are burned after the workout, as well as from increased postexercise metabolism. But in most cases, the majority of the calories are burned during the exercise session itself.
4. Excess postexercise oxygen consumption (EPOC)
After intense or prolonged exercise, your metabolism stays elevated for up to 12 to 24 hours, and in extreme cases, for up to 48 hours. Exercise physiologists call this “excess postexercise oxygen consumption” (EPOC). Some trainers call it “the afterburn effect.”
The number of extra calories burned from EPOC is related to intensity and duration, but intensity is the critical factor. Increases in duration produce a linear increase in EPOC, while increases in intensity produce an exponential increase in EPOC. The downside is that EPOC only kicks in after very intense exercise such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT). [For more on this strategy, see “HIIT It!” in the December 2008 archives.]
If you can’t tolerate intense exercise right now — either physically or psychologically — then don’t do it until you feel ready. Low- and moderate-intensity exercise is by no means ineffective, it simply takes more time or volume to burn the same amount of fat. As you continue exercising, you’ll find that your tolerance for brief stints of more intense exercise will increase. Begin building brief periods of jogging into your walking routine, or brief periods of sprinting into your jogging routine, and you’ll find that you get better results in less time, and also feel your energy levels, strength and endurance increasing.
Just do what you can and continue to challenge yourself a little more each week. But remember, your first priority has to be building your health and vitality, which will naturally make all kinds of exercise easier and more effective. Your desired outcome is to be lean and healthy, not one or the other.
5. Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
Every time you eat a meal, your metabolic rate increases due to the energy expenditure required by digestion. This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF), and it accounts for about 10 percent of your energy expenditure.
One way you can increase TEF is by eating more highly thermic foods. Protein has a thermic effect of 30 percent. This means that if you eat a lean-protein food that has 100 calories, 30 of those calories are used to digest and process the food. Carbohydrates have a thermic effect of 10 to 15 percent, while dietary fat has the lowest thermic effect of only 3 percent (remember, though: healthy fats and carbs are still essential to proper nutrition).
This may be why a high-protein diet can produce a slightly greater weight loss than the same amount of calories at a lower intake of protein. Protein is also an appetite suppressant, and when you’re in a calorie deficit, eating enough protein helps spare your muscles. Research has shown that substituting just one daily serving of lean protein for one serving of refined carbs can make a difference in body composition.
6. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
As the name implies, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or NEAT, is all the physical activity you do throughout the day outside of formal exercise or sports. This includes standing, pacing, walking, shopping, gardening, housework, and even things like talking, chewing, changing posture and fidgeting.
For most people, NEAT accounts for about 30 percent of physical-activity calories spent daily (the rest is RMR and exercise), but NEAT can run as low as 15 percent in sedentary individuals and as high as 50 percent in highly active individuals. If you manipulate your NEAT in minor ways throughout the day, the results can add up in a big way over the long term.
Take the stairs instead of the elevator, do yard work, and run more errands on foot. In other words, do your best to spend less time in a chair and more time walking. You may want to invest in a pedometer, which will tally up your steps every day. A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that in previously sedentary overweight adults, subjects who met a 10,000-steps-per-day goal saw large improvements in body composition.
Tom Venuto is an internationally recognized fat-loss expert, nutrition researcher and natural bodybuilder. This article is adapted from Venuto’s book, The Body Fat Solution: 5 Principles for Burning Fat, Building Lean Muscle, Ending Emotional Eating, and Maintaining Your Perfect Weight, by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., copyright © 2009. Available in paperback December 2009.