Stop equating exercise with fat loss

There are no fat loss workouts. While exercising, particularly resistance training helps improve your fat loss results, it’s not what drives the fat loss in the first place. We need to stop equating exercise with fat loss, and start focussing on what actually creates fat loss results and what we should be focussing on when we workout.

If we look at our total calorie needs across a typical day, it’s made up of the following 4 factors:

  1. BMR – This is the biggest user of the calories you consume, it’s what is needed to run all the metabolic functions you need for life. It’s based on your size and body composition, so the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you will burn. And someone who’s 6’5″ and 100kgs will burn more calories than someone who is 5’5″ and 70kgs.
  2. NEAT – This is all the energy burned from non exercise activities such as walking, climbing stairs, doing chores etc. It’s the next biggest user of calories, which is why your daily movement matters when it comes to changes in body composition. Getting those 10000 steps a day makes a pretty big difference.
  3. TEF – The Thermic Effect of Food. Everything you eat, from protein bars to pastries requires energy for processing, digestion and absorption. Some foods have a higher cost, some are lower. For example a packet of crisps won’t take much to chew, digest and absorb what little nutritional value it might hold, but a chicken salad with plenty of veggies and a good portion of chicken will require considerably more. On average it works out at about 10-15% of your total energy intake.
  4. EAT – Finally, we get to the energy used for exercise. As you can see it is the least energy demanding part of your daily energy demand, and while it may, for most people work out at about 10% of your daily energy need, if you only workout 3-4 times a week, that percentage falls even lower as part of your weekly energy use.

As you can see, relying on your exercise habits to make any significant impact on your fat loss is a little misguided. While it’s certainly possible to out work your diet, not many of us have the time nor inclination to spend the amount of time and effort on training and cardio that it would take to burn enough calories to do so. Add to the time and effort required, the fact that your appetite and need to consume more energy to keep up with the energy demands and recovery needed, and it’s easy to see how misguided this approach would become.

So what is exercise good for? And what should you be doing for fat loss?

10 reasons you should exercise regularly

  1. Maintaining and building muscle mass
  2. Building power (the ability to move quickly)
  3. Improve quality of life as you age.
  4. Improve joint pain and stiffness.
  5. Protect against many chronic diseases.
  6. Aid in weight management. (the more muscle mass you have, the better you handle carb intakes and the more calories you burn at rest).
  7. Improve your memory and brain function (all age groups).
  8. Lower blood pressure and improve heart health.
  9. Improve your quality of sleep.
  10. Reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

While regular exercise can aid in weight management, the other factors, plus many others I missed off the list, are undoubtedly more important. Building and maintaining muscle mass and power for as long as we can is vital if we are to remain physically able for as long as possible. Improving the strength and function around joints can be a major factor in reducing pain. The cognitive and mental benefits of regular training are well researched and, if you could measure them, worth their weight in gold.

Training regularly should be about increasing the benefits it brings to you not about an all out effort to make yourself less.

But what about fat loss?

If losing a bit of body fat is part of your goals, then you would be better served to make a few small tweaks to your diet than in trying to increase your training output. Granted, if you are new to training, then that increase in training will contribute more significantly to your progress than someone with a year or more of training time under their belt. But nonetheless, reducing your food intake a little will make more of a difference, more easily.

Here are 2 simple ways you can adjust your food intake to kickstart the fat loss process without resorting to the kind of extremes you often see promoted on social media.

Option 1: Counting calories.

Take an estimated goal body weight in pounds (kgs x 2.2) and multiply that by 10-12.  For example, if you currently weigh 80kgs and want to get down to around 75, convert 75kgs to pounds (x2.2) to get 165lbs. Multiply by 10 and 12 to get your daily calorie range, 1650 – 1980kcals/day. Landing anywhere in this range will put you into a calorie deficit and get the ball rolling. Having a range to work within is beneficial because it gives you much more flexibility to enjoy more of the foods you like. And it removes the feeling that you’ve failed if you don’t hit a single number target exactly.

For protein, multiply your target weight in pounds (165) by 0.7-1 to get a range of 115-165g of protein /day. Again, having a range is useful because it gives more flexibility around food choices.

Option 2: Portion control

If like many people, you don’t want to go down the route of counting calories and protein on a daily basis, you can use a portion control method to make your serving sizes more appropriate to your goal. There are many options around, but one I like for many clients is 3 meals, 2 snacks option outlined below.

This method gives you a simple format to follow, focussing on protein and veggies, that is repeatable and flexible enough to work within most lifestyles. By having a template to follow, it makes making food choices that align with your goals easier.

It doesn’t matter much if you use one of the methods above, or any of the other options out there. But it’s important that we stop equating exercise with fat loss. Use diet and daily movement to guide your fat loss. Then focus on training for all the other wonderful benefits it brings you.

Stay strong,



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