If you’re looking to slim down, it’s a good idea to zero in on burning body fat. Simply put, burning fat leads to weight loss because you’ll have less fat stubbornly sticking to your body. And while there are superficial benefits to having a lower body fat percentage — your jeans will fit more comfortably and muscles will appear more toned and defined — it also comes with big health perks.
Having a too-high percentage of body fat can lead to obesity, which comes with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some types of cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic.
So what’s the difference between a fat-burning exercise and other exercises? It all comes down to intensity, says Len Kravitz, PhD, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “Exercise at a comfortable but challenging intensity for optimal fat burning,” he says.
Not sure how to quantify that idea of “intensity”? Try the talk test, as outlined by the American College of Sports Medicine: You should be able to maintain a basic conversation at moderate intensity, but just a few words will be manageable at a vigorous intensity.
The long-held idea is that by exercising at a lower than maximum effort, you’ll encourage your body to burn fat calories for energy, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
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Don’t get too hung up on that, though, since fat burning also occurs as a result of higher-intensity workouts, primarily because of what happens when the workout ends. That’s when the afterburn effect (exercise scientists call it “excess postexercise oxygen consumption”) comes into play. Your body’s metabolism remains spiked after a high-intensity workout, and the body burns fat as a result.
The bottom line: Both higher-intensity and moderate-intensity workouts can be effective at burning fat. Which one is more effective is still a matter of debate — but both have a place in a workout regimen aimed at achieving optimal fat loss.
A mix of cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise and strength training is ideal for burning fat, says Cat Kom, an ACE-certified personal trainer and CEO and founder of Studio Sweat in San Diego. Any type of cardio that gets your heart rate up to roughly 60 to 90 percent of your max heart rate (which is approximately 220 minus your age, according to the Mayo Clinic) will do the trick, Kom says. “When you get that heart pumping and keep it there, you’re going to burn more calories overall, which leads to increased fat loss,” she says.
Don’t skimp on strength training, though. “The simple truth is this: The more muscle you have, the more fat your body is going to burn at rest,” she says.
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According to one review, 10 weeks of resistance training increased resting metabolic rate by 7 percent and reduced fat weight by about 4 pounds. Another study found that either resistance or aerobic training led to some belly fat reductions in young people with obesity, but the combination of both was even more effective.
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Finally, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has proved to be a fat blaster, too, because it results in excess postexercise oxygen consumption (that afterburn effect), Kom says. “When you reach this highly pumped state, your body uses extra oxygen to bring it back to normal, which boosts your metabolism and leads to — you guessed it — burning fat,” she says. One study found that three months of HIIT led to a loss of 4.4 pounds of body fat. (Note, though, that HIIT workouts are best done one to three times per week, rather than daily, since your body will need at least a day to recover.)
A 6-Step Fat-Burning Workout
Kom helped us put together a fat-burning workout that you can complete at home or at the gym. She recommends doing each exercise for 30 seconds back to back, with 30 to 60 seconds of rest in between each round. Try not to rest in between the moves — that’ll keep your heart rate up and your body burning calories and fat, Kom says. This should be done at a high intensity that leaves you breathless — you should be able to talk in phrases, but not easily carry on a conversation or sing — and maintaining good form is more important than speed, Kom says.
How many rounds you do is up to you and your ability. Kom says the most important things are to warm up for a few minutes to help avoid injury, and then enjoy the workout. “If you don’t like how it feels, you’re less likely to do it again,” she says. Try to knock it out two or three times per week. Do one round for a quick fat-blasting break if you’re short on time, or as many rounds as you can fit into 15 to 30 minutes to reap the most benefit, she says.
1. Jumping Jacks
Start in a standing position with your arms resting at your sides. Slightly bend your knees and jump your legs out so they’re a little more than shoulder-width apart. At the same time, thrust your arms out and over your head. Then return your body to your starting position and repeat for 30 seconds of continuous jumping. To make this more challenging as your progress, hold light dumbbells (1 to 3 pounds) throughout the move.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. In one fluid motion, lower your body into a squat, place your hands on the ground in front of your feet, and jump your feet back so you land in a plank position. Then jump to return your feet to near your hands and complete a powerful jump straight up into the air. Repeat. To make it more challenging, add a push-up when you’re in the plank position. If you’re a beginner, do a squat thrust instead for lower impact: The move is similar to a burpee, except you don’t complete the explosive jump at the end and simply stand up.
3. Squat Jumps
With your feet shoulder-width apart, lower your body into a squat position (back and upper body stay lifted, and hips and butt lower down to the ground as if you’re sitting in an imaginary chair). Keep your core tight and launch into an explosive jump. Land lightly on your feet and immediately lower into a squat again. Repeat. To make this move more challenging, you can wear a weight vest or hold a weighted ball or light dumbbells.
4. Skater Jumps
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. With your right foot planted, cross your left leg behind you and out to your right side (almost as if you’re doing a curtsy lunge). Your weight should be supported by your right leg. Simultaneously, swing your right arm out to about shoulder height and your left arm across your body reaching toward your right hip. Then jump to your left and repeat the movement on your left side. Land on your left foot and swing your right leg behind you and out to your left side. (Left arm should simultaneously swing out to your left side and right arm should extend toward your left hip.) Continue leaping back and forth with arms swinging in a skating motion. To make this move more challenging, try touching your hand to the ground instead of simply swinging it out to the side.
5. Plank Jacks
Begin in a plank position with your wrists in line with your shoulders and your body extended in a straight line behind you. Your feet should be planted together on the floor. Jump your legs out wide, and then jump them back together at a quick pace. Be sure to keep your core engaged throughout and be careful not to let your hips sag.
6. High Knees
From a standing position, lift your left knee into your chest. Swiftly switch your legs so your right knee is now pulled into your chest. At a nonstop pace, keep alternating your knees and move your arms in a running motion, with your left arm lifting with your right leg and right arm lifting with your left leg.
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