Exercise Tips for Fat Loss


Women's Sports Medicine Center,
Hospital for Special Surgery

Regular exercise, in combination with a reduced-calorie diet, can promote fat loss. However, the real value of regular physical activity is that it will help you keep weight off once you’ve lost it, or prevent you from gaining unwanted fat in the first place!

To lose body fat, you must simply burn more calories than you take in. Many people try sit-ups and leg lifts to target certain areas of the body. This may improve specific muscle endurance, but doesn’t selectively reduce fat. Your body has its own genetic pattern which determines where you deposit extra fat and how you respond to diet and activity changes. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends exercising 200-300 minutes/week for effective weight loss and the prevention of weight regain (for example, 40-60 mins, 5 days/wk). At the same time, individuals seeking to lose weight should reduce their overall calorie intake by 500-1000 calories and reduce fat intake to less than 30% of total calories. For weight control, the National Institute of Medicine recommends a program of moderate intensity exercise (for example, walking 4 mph), 60 mins/session, 5 days/wk.

Cardiovascular exercise is a great choice for burning calories and fat, no matter where the fat is on your body. Cardiovascular exercise elevates your metabolism during the activity, requires lots of energy and makes you a more effective fat-burner. Cardiovascular exercise activities include:

* Brisk walking

* Aerobics classes

* Many types of dancing

* Cycling

* Swimming

* Rowing

* Jogging

* Elliptical training

* Cross-country skiing/Nordic Track

* Hiking

* Soccer, Basketball and other high movement sports

Any activity that uses large muscle groups in continuous motion for 20-30 minutes will improve your stamina. The more muscles involved and the harder you exercise the more calories you burn!

How do I get started?

If you're new to exercise, start slowly. Begin with a 10-15 minute workout and add a minute or two each week. Limit increases in time or distance to about 10% weekly. This may feel slow, but you are setting the stage for more vigorous or high-volume activity. Although you may not be burning that many calories now, you’ll avoid the "too much, too soon" injury trap. Try non-weight-bearing activities like cycling or water exercise in addition to walking, jogging, etc. This is particularly important if you're carrying extra weight which can put undue stress on your joints. Gradually add a form of interval training: Exercise briskly for a 1-2 minutes, then exercise easily until you catch your breath, then briskly, then easily and so on. Each week, try to add a few more minutes of challenging intervals.

If you have previous muscle or joint injuries (for example: back pain, knee problems) ask your doctor to refer you to a physical therapist who can give you strengthening and stretching exercises related to your injury. This will help protect weakened joints and muscles from re-injury.

How hard do you have to exercise to burn up body fat? The harder the intensity of exercise, the more calories are burned by the body. However, when starting a new exercise program, it's unwise and unsafe to exercise at high intensities. That's why a low to moderate pace is recommended for beginners. You’ll just need to exercise longer to burn up the calories. Make your pace as brisk as you can handle. When you have established a good routine, try to add intervals of higher intensity effort into your workout - or just stick with it! Over time, the regularity of your exercise program is even more important than intensity level. Remember, keep exercise up and you’ll keep weight off!

Variety and enjoyment are the keys to exercise adherence. To lose fat you'll want to incorporate more than one type of activity into your life and find things you enjoy for many different reasons. This will help you avoid overuse injuries, keep exercise fun and give you a menu of activity choices depending on your mood, schedule and weather.

Can strength training help me lose weight?

YES! Strength training 2-3 times/week can build or maintain muscle, the type of body tissue associated with a speedy metabolism and high activity patterns. People with healthy levels of muscle burn more calories all day long! Initially, you may actually gain a little muscle weight through strength training, but that will help you lose unwanted fat. Strength training can be done at home or at the gym. Ask a fitness professional to show you correct technique for about 10 total exercises for your legs, arms and trunk. Start off with light weights, but after 4 weeks, try to work against more challenging resistance. Lifting weights increases your strength to help you engage in calorie-burning activities without injury. Strength training can also slow down muscle loss related to inactivity and aging.

Just how much weight should I expect to lose by exercising?

Exercise is most effective for fat loss when combined with a program of reduced calorie and fat intake. With exercise alone, your fat loss will be slow and steady, determined by the intensity and volume of exercise you perform each week. A fat loss of no more than 1-2 lbs/week is recommended for most people. The faster you lose weight, the more likely you will be to gain it back. If you lose 2-4 pounds of fat every month through realistic lifestyle changes, you will be 24-48 pounds lighter at the end of a year! And remember that no matter how you lose your extra fat, regular physical activity is critical for preventing weight regain.

If you would like to have an idea of the number of calories burned by a specific activity, ask us for an Energy Expenditure Chart. There are a few things to keep in mind.

  • It takes about 3,500 calories to burn one pound of fat.
  • The benefits of strength training and aerobic conditioning go far beyond simple energy expenditure. The changes in your body chemistry and many aspects of physical function will promote health, vitality and an ideal weight.

When you calculate the energy cost of an activity, remember that you would have been doing something else to burn calories (probably sitting) if you weren’t exercising. This means that the extra calories you’re burning through exercise must reflect the difference between your normal activity and your exercise activity.


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