The Fat Burning Zone

Treadmills and other cardio machines all over the world have something like this chart glued on.

When I was at UC Davis, I was about 5’9” and 175#, and desperately wanted to become like my 5’3” 135# filipino friend Arel, who could fly on the dance floor. Thinking back, I realize this wasn’t possible or healthy to pursue for my post-football frame. But, like many thoughts around weight and diet, it wasn’t rational. It was unfair!

Power moves are all about power-to-weight-ratio, and body control. If you were carrying extra weight, it’s like doing burpees or pull-ups with a weight vest on, but worse.

So, my solution was — besides eating like a bird for brief periods before binge eating Mexican food — after every practice session I would additionally get on the treadmill and get in the Fat Burning Zone for 45-60 minutes. I’d start at 4-5 mph and checked my heart rate on the handy hand electrodes every few minutes, to make sure I wasn’t going too hard and getting out of the Fat Burning Zone (heavens no!).

I could literally feel the fat melting off as I sweated it out. It was glorious, it was satisfying, I worked up an incredible appetite.

Sad news friends: there is no Fat Burning Zone. What there is, is a level of power output you can sustain for a fairly long time (if your form doesn’t suck and your joints don’t ache) without working terribly hard, and burning a ton of calories in the process. I’m talking 1000+ kCals if you keep at it for 45-60 min at a decent pace (but not too fast!). Then, when the sweat settles, because you still haven’t broken your sugar addiction and have also completely depleted your muscle glycogen, you become ravenously hungry. Then, as sure as the sun rises, you will eat it all back and then some to make up the difference within 2-3 days.

I know, I know. But you, unlike all those other people and all those other times — you have Willpower. And you will flex your Willpower Muscles and show all those pizzas and cookies who’s da boss! You’re like, totally gonna resist all those delicious pizzas and cookies and things this time — nay! — once and for all!

Just think about all those cheeses, snausages, and pepperonis, chocolate chips, don’t forget the milk! Oh wow, once again they have magically materialized in front of me, I guess I’ll just have one bite to taste…

You know how the rest of that story ends. So how might it be different?

Well, for one, you must learn that you can’t “outrun” a bad diet. If you’re eating pizza and cookies (or whatever your version of that is) on the regs, you have to break that cycle through behaviour modification before exercise can positively contribute to your long-term health.

Second, you have to disabuse yourself of the pervasive but false notion that exercise burns fat, or more generally that weight loss and fat loss are simply a matter of calories in versus calories out. There is a lot of shady marketing being done to keep you believing this, which is why it’s so pervasive. Like good dealers, they make their money on the comeback.

Some of you may have tried doing InBody Scans after exercising diligently for a while — but not changing your diet at all — and been astonished that the body fat levels stay exactly where they were, even though the muscle mass might improve with exercise. The dreaded “bulky” physique: improved muscle mass + stubbornly high body fat levels. This is a perfect illustration of the role exercise plays in body composition. You can add muscle, but the fat will not budge if the diet doesn’t improve.

Finally, you must reframe your priorities when it comes to fat loss. First, the Nutrition, second the Exercise. Nutrition is at the base of the Fitness pyramid for good reason. And if that is the case, then your work begins with what types of foods you allow in your household in the first place. It starts with a healthier shopping list; a hard reset of the food environment you set yourself up in. We recommend the Whole30 approach.

But this is not an easy task, so it will often require help. Don’t go it alone! Ask a friend or family member to help hold you accountable. And when they stop answering your calls, or you need more help, call us instead.


Cypher Health & Fitness

P.S. Special thanks to Cypher member Elizabeth X. for the writing prompt!

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