Our expert says:
Sorry for taking so long to get back to you - I was in Tanzania last week on Kilimanjaro...
OK, so the fat burning thing is another misconception about heart rate. You never really burn muscle, except when you exercise for super long, and here we're talking 12 hours or more, then it might start to happen. So I wouldn't worry about that.
There is a lot of confusion and misconception about this one. Ever since people noticed that heart rate goes up as intensity goes up, they have used it to gauge exercise intensity. Then, when it was noticed that the fuel that is used also depends on the exercise intensity, it was thought that heart rate monitoring was a good way to train at just the right zone to burn fat. In theory, this is true, but there is more to it than this. What happens is that at low exercise intensities (less than 60% of maximum), the main source of fuel used by the body is fat. As exercise intensity increases above 65 to 70%, progressively more and more of the energy that is produced comes from the carbohydrate stores, meaning that fat contributes a smaller overall percentage of the total energy use. However, and many people forget this, the overall energy use also increases, so that, even though fat might be contributing less as a percentage of the energy, it is still being used in larger quantities. That means that the total amount of fat being burned per minute might actually be higher at higher intensities, which is what you want. So, many people make the mistake of trying to go at a low intensity, to burn fat, which means that they are probably using more fat than carbohydrate, but the overall energy used is so low that the results are barely noticeable.
SO, basically, the body does not have certain ‘zones’ at which it uses just fat and then just carbohydrates – there is no on-off switch, but a gradual change from fat to carbohydrates, which means that you have to find the exact intensity to burn more fat in total, not more fat as a percentage, if you follow my logic. Also, at slightly higher exercise intensities, the total energy that is being used is greater, which means that the total amount of fat that is being used is also greater – so, to answer the question, I’m more in favour of higher intensity training to burn fat.
However, a word of caution, this does not mean going out and training hard all the time. You have to find the right balance. Your goal should be to use the greatest total amounts of fat, and this means that the duration of the training must also be long enough to burn more fat. So, it’s not only the intensity, but also the duration that is vital. That’s why you can’t just go out and train at 90% of maximum – you would tire very quickly, meaning that your total fat and energy use would be relatively low.
Therefore, my advice would be to aim for an intensity that you judge by perception of effort, and not heart rate. Until, that is, you learn what kind of heart rate is associated with the perception FOR YOU. In other words, get to know your body - that 30 min session on the elliptical, for example, might be done at say 150 bpm, and that's what you use in future, because it's the session that gives you the best workout. The fact that the person alongside you might be at 120 is not a factor, you're different people, so don't compare...
The main thing is to be able to finish a session of 45 minutes or so of training feeling like your breathing is elevated, that you’ve had a hard session, but that you are not completely exhausted. The other piece of advice is that you could also exercise at a low intensity (60 to 70%), with short periods of high intensity in between. So, say you are training for 45 minutes, every 9 or 10 minutes, you could pick up the intensity for one minute. This type of training is very good for fitness, performance and weight loss.
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