How many times have you seen workouts described as “fat-shredding”? Or stuff about the best fat loss workouts? Allow me to let you into a little secret…there is no such thing as a fat loss workout.
Workouts like these tend to be higher intensity, and higher intensity work primarily uses carbs for fuel, not fat. Therefore maybe we should call these workouts something different, like maybe just workouts. And while they will certainly burn through a few calories, it’s often a lot fewer than you might expect. A heavy resistance training session, for example, will burn between 276 and 396 Kcals in an hour for a person at 75kg bodyweight. That’s not a lot. In fact, that’s pretty much the calorie content of that protein shake you down after your session.
So why even bother?
Before you give up your gym membership, let’s give this stuff a little more thought, shall we?
Training does a lot of wonderful things for your body. From increased strength, stronger bones and connective tissue, to increased confidence, more resiliency (both physical and mental), higher self-esteem and reduced risk of many illnesses that are brought on from our ever-increasingly inactive lives.
And from a fat loss perspective, building, or at least maintaining, our lean muscle mass helps ensure that most of the weight that we lose come from our fat stores and not from our lean mass.
So if fat loss doesn’t happen in the gym, where does it happen?
Literally everywhere else.
You spend maybe 3-4 hours in the gym each week, meaning you spend about 164 hours each week not in the gym. And it’s in these hours that you can determine your fat loss success or failure.
Fat loss comes from being in a calorie deficit and being able to maintain as much of your lean mass as you can. Your calorie deficit is largely driven by your diet, but non exercise activities (potentially) contribute a greater calorie burning boost than training does. Let’s look at the various areas that can influence your fat loss results.
The easiest way to affect your calorie balance is through the food you eat. Focussing on higher nutrient/ lower calorie foods for the bulk of your food intake helps you feel fuller, reduce the likelihood that hunger will make you snack between meals and, when protein is reasonably high, you maintain more lean mass and lose more fat.
Building better nutrition habits can be a challenge, but keeping a record of the foods you eat, maybe tracking calories and macros for a while, and adjusting your intake according to the data you collect can help steer you in the right direction.
From the affect on decision making, particularly around food choices, to hormonal regulation of hunger and satiety (via ghrelin and leptin), to boosting the amount of lean mass you hold onto if you do get into a calorie deficit, sleep plays a massive role in your progress. So much so, that even when calorie intakes are matched between groups, the group with longer average sleep duration lost more fat, and saved more muscle, despite both groups losing the same amount of weight. Remember that weight loss and fat loss aren’t necessarily the same thing.
Increasing the amount of sleep you get on a regular basis, up to between 7 and 8 hours each and every night should be your goal here. If that seems daunting, try starting with just an extra 15-30 minutes. Whatever your normal bedtime might be, bring it forward a little. Then each week or 2, bring it forward a little more until you are getting the right amount of sleep for you. And, no, you don’t “need” to catch the latest episode of whatever it is this month. If you have to see it, get it on catch up later.
N.E.A.T. Non exercise activity thermogenesis. Just a fancy way of describing all the unstructured movement you do each day, from blinking and fidgeting, to chores and walking to and from your work. All that movement adds up to a fairly sizeable chunk of calories burned each day. And one of the unfortunate side effects of reducing your calorie intake is to have your body fight your attempts at fat loss by making you subconsciously reduce your movement. You fidget less, blink slower (seriously!) and are less inclined to do stuff. Your job is to make sure that you at least maintain your step count because you have zero control of how quickly you blink…
Aiming to keep walking some or all the way to and from work, parking further away from your destination, taking the stairs instead of the lift can all help you maintain more of the calories you currently burn through your activity.
This can play a massive part in your success or failure when you are looking to achieve any level of fat loss. If you are accustomed to getting home from work, slumping into your favourite chair and crushing a bag of crisps before you drag yourself into the kitchen to make dinner, simply not having those crisps (or other tempting high-calorie snacks) in your home can make it easier to go without.
Other environmental changes you can make to improve your odds of success are:
- changing your routes to and from work to avoid that tempting cafe and their delicious muffins
- eating away from your desk at work.
- scheduling a PT session on a Thursday night so after-work drinks have to be soft drinks or water.
- having a no junk food rule in your house to avoid tempting binges.
- Doing a food shop and prep day once or twice a week to make sure you have nutritious food available more of the time.
However, you do it, setting your surrounding to match your goals makes it a whole lot easier to avoid falling back into old habits and keep you making progress.