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Neighbors of Kane County

Fat Burning Myths

Dec 11, 2019 01:08PM ● By Anita Malik

The term fat-burning has become ubiquitous in our modern world.  Hardly a day passes without the topic coming up in a conversation.  Unfortunately, the fat-burning concept has kept America misguided for decades.  Turns out being pre-occupied with burning fat can undermine your exercise program and health!    

In 1979, the authors of the Surgeon General’s Report on Health and Nutrition outlined a range of recommendations to reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity in the United States.  At that time, overweight and obesity were threatening the health of the country and quickly becoming a public health issue. In an anticipated move, the fitness industry embraced these recommendations with open arms.  The industry immediately began adding fat-burning programs to their exercise machines (i.e., treadmills, rowers, elliptical trainers, bikes, etc.). If health officials want less obesity, the fitness industry was ready and willing to support the cause by building (and selling) tens of thousands of fat-burning machines!  

Flawed Concept  

Technically speaking, we burn fat all day, every day, even in our sleep.  In fact, there’s never a time we aren’t burning fat. Our bodies meet their demand for cellular energy by burning (i.e., consuming) fat and carbohydrate throughout the day.  As we become more active, our bodies burn more fat and carbohydrate to keep pace with the demand for energy. Both intake (calories consumed) and output (calories burned) influence fat stores (i.e., the size and number of fat cells in your body).  To reduce the size of fat cells you must maintain a negative energy balance. A negative energy balance means your output (calories burned) exceeds your intake (calories consumed). Without a negative energy balance, it doesn’t matter how much fat you burn during your workout, you’ll never lose bodyfat.  

The Research 

Scientists have been putting the fat-burning concept to the test for more than three decades.  Evidence that fat-burning doesn’t matter first showed up in 1984 [1]. A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine) placed college-aged men on two different exercise programs.  One group exercised on a fat-burning program (lower intensity) while the other group exercised on a non-fat-burning program (higher intensity).  Both groups burned approximately 300 calories per exercise session. At the end of 18 weeks, the researchers found that the two groups had lost equivalent amounts of body fat.  

A 1990 study [2] published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition included twenty-seven obese women randomly assigned to fat-burning, or non-fat-burning exercise programs.  Both groups exercised for three days per week for eight weeks. The researchers concluded that the two groups had similar reductions in body fat regardless of the type of exercise program they followed.  Other scientists have also spoken out against the fat-burning concept. In the October 1995 issue of Tuft’s University Health & Nutrition Letter, exercise physiologist Jeffrey Rupp, Ph.D., is quoted as saying “The idea that you cannot lose fat unless you burn fat while you exercise has absolutely no scientific support.  In her highly acclaimed book, The Fat-Free Truth, author Liz Neporent directs readers to ignore the fat-burning concept, stating that it’s misleading [3].  

Not surprisingly, the most current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans make no recommendation that adults concern themselves with fat-burning.  Similarly, the world’s largest group of exercise professionals (the American College of Sports Medicine) also make no reference to fat-burning in their Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription.  These guidelines are used by thousands of fitness professionals every day to make appropriate exercise recommendations for patients and clients.  It turns out that obsessing over fat-burning is both unscientific and unnecessary!   

What Matters

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (PAGA) [4] are a good resource for consumers when it comes to exercise.  The PAGA’s recommends at least 75-minutes of vigorous physical activity or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.  In addition, the guidelines also recommend Strength Training for all adults. Given that 80 percent of adults don’t Strength Train, I suggest you begin with Strength Training.  In addition to the health benefits Strength Training provides, it also makes you more functional (stronger) which makes living and active lifestyle much more doable. Trying to stay active as you’re becoming weaker is an uphill battle! 

By Richard J. Wolff, RDN  

MEDFITNESS is a Strength Training Studio specializing in On Demand Personal Training.  For more information please visit www.medfitnessprogram.com.  Learn more about evidence-based strength training by visiting their “Learning Center” at www.medfitnessprogram.com/blog


References

  1. Exercise and Science in Sports and Exercise; 1984: 16:269.   

  2. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Volume 51, pp. 142-146, 1990.  

  3. Neporent L., Schlosberg S. 2005. The Fat-Free Truth. New York, NY. Houghton Mifflin Company.

  4. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/ 

  5. Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. American College of Sports Medicine, Seventh Edition, 2006.