Burning Fat: Weight Loss And Exercise


This guy is getting a good workout.


If you’ve been following our series, “Real Help With Weight Loss” you know losing weight requires more than eating the right food or only eating a certain quantity of it. We’ve learned, for example, that our metabolism is the mechanism our bodies use to manage weight—a well-functioning metabolism burns fat. We’ve learned the importance of consulting a physician before starting a weight loss program because certain physical conditions like a slow thyroid slows down our metabolism. We’ve learned getting enough sleep makes our metabolism more efficient and getting too little makes it less. We’ve learned that stress and emotions like anxiety or depression can short-circuit our best efforts to lose weight. Today, we go a step further and learn why the amount of physical activity we get is so important for shedding extra pounds.


The Past Is Key To Understanding Our “Battle Of The Bulge”


A pen of goats.

Very few people now work the land. The hidden price is larger waistlines.

It’s useful to think about physical activity by remembering those who came before us. For thousands of years, humanity spent a good part of the day scouring the land for prey or working it to grow food. There were no guns that would shoot several hundred yards. The most capable members of the tribe would hone their skills and walk or run long distances to find the best hunting grounds. For those who tended the land, there were no tractors or combines to sow seeds or bring in the harvest. We relied on our bodies and crude tools to scratch out an existence. In essence, from dawn to dusk ours was a mostly physical existence.


Contrast the “hunter-gatherer lifestyle” or “early agricultural lifestyle” with the lifestyle we live today. Even if we work in labor-intensive professions (say, as carpenters or plumbers), chances are we’ll run home when the workday is complete and plop down in front of a computer or TV for the next several hours. And for those whose jobs involve working all day in front of a computer screen, it’s much worse. For example, as a blogger, I spend a majority of my days exercising little more than my fingers as I sit staring at my computer.



It doesn’t help when nearly all our recreational time is also spent sitting rather than moving. How many hours do we sit in front of the TV? How many hours do we spend on Facebook or other social media sites? How many hours do we sit around playing video games? How many hours do we spend on our iPads or smart phones? It all adds up to a point where our inactive hours far exceed our active ones.


Not every job is physical, but some are all about being physical.

Most jobs these days aren’t nearly as physical as this one. How would you like to climb trees all day?

Is it any wonder that according to the Center For Disease Control, “In 2009–2010, over 78 million U.S. adults and about 12.5 million U.S. children and adolescents were obese?” When you think about it, it’s a shocking indictment of our technologically-based lifestyle. The very tools that bring us greater efficiency in the workplace, access to more information, better communication and so on are also leaving us with horrible side-effects. Excess body fat is linked to health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, certain forms of cancer and potentially other serious illnesses like Alzheimer’s and dementia.


Calories, Physical Activity & Weight Loss


Here’s a simple test: Reach down and pinch the band of fat around your waist and abdomen. Make sure no muscle is included. Are the tips of your fingers more than an inch apart? If so, there’s a good chance you have excess body fat. Now before you panic, talk to your doctor and find how you stack up for people of your age, sex and height.


Walking is a great exercise.

One of the nicest parts of walking is you can do it almost anywhere.

In a simple world, the best way to lose weight is to decrease our calorie consumption and increase our overall level of physical activity. Why is this true? When we eat more calories than we burn up we store the remainder as fat. There’s an important corollary in this: When the amount of physical activity we undergo uses up more calories than we consume the body uses its current store of fat to get the extra energy we require. Thus, to achieve the biggest weight loss we want to dip further and further into our fat stores. To do this, we want to consume fewer calories than the body needs to perform basic functions and we want to add in “fat-burning” physical activities.


In the real world, the human body’s ability to gain or lose weight isn’t strictly limited to the number of calories consumed and physical activity. We’ve already learned that sleep cycles and emotions also play a big role in our ability to lose weight. What physical activity adds to the mix is a key mechanism for jump-starting the body’s ability to burn fat.


I love running with my dog.

For sheer impact, running is one of the best calorie burning exercises.

There are endless excuses for not being more active: We don’t have time. It hurts. We can’t seem to work up the motivation. It isn’t fun. The weather was crummy. There’s no place to do it. My car broke down. I’ll do it tomorrow. The list goes on.


Excuse or not, there’s something else worth understanding in regards physical activity: “Each pound of fat your body stores represents 3500 calories of unused energy. In order to lose one pound, you would have to create a calorie deficit of 3500 calories by either taking in 3500 less calories over a period of time than you need or doing 3500 calories worth of exercise.” (Source: Center For Disease Control)


Fitness: Getting Rid Of Fat


Try an exercise that appeals to you. If you like plants, try gardening.

Any activity is better than no activity. Gardening is good for bending, stretching, lifting, hauling and getting fresh air.

Now that we know how many calories are in a pound of fat, how long does it take to burn them off? Remember, to burn any fat we need to eat fewer calories than our bodies use up during the day. If you want to know how many calories you are likely burning up based on your weight, height, sex and activity level, you can try this calorie calculator from Calculator.net.  After entering your information, the calculator will return a number which gives you an approximate idea. It’s not perfect because everyone is different, but it is a place to start. You can then play with it to see what changing your overall level of activity will do for you.  To be clear, this tool won’t tell you how many calories you’re currently eating. Instead, it’s the upper limit of calories to eat if you plan to maintain or lose weight.


It may be worth looking at an example to put this all together. Let’s imagine “Mary” is 27, 5 foot 3 inches tall and weighs 150 pounds. She leads a sedentary lifestyle and mostly sits in front of a computer or TV for most of the day. She does get in a 30 minute walk a few times a week, but her doctor would like her to lose 20-25 pounds. She enters her numbers in the calculator and it returns a number of 1900 calories. That’s the total number she should eat to avoid gaining more weight assuming everything stays the same—in other words, if she doesn’t increase her level of physical activity.  From playing with the calculator, she also learns that by leading a “very active” lifestyle” she could eat 2400 calories and still maintain her weight. Put another way, if she ate only 1900 calories she would “burn” 500 calories from her fat store every day. Now, as one pound of fat equal 3500 calories, Mary does the math and learns that if she ate 1900 calories and took up running, she could lose (3500/500 or about) a pound every 7 days. If she kept at it, this means she should lose about 20 pounds in twenty weeks (about 5 months).


Get out for some fresh air.

Find beautiful places close to you. You can get in a hike and cut stress by taking in the view.

As we’ve tried to point out, life is rarely as simple as the example above. If Mary is constantly failing to get enough sleep, eating only sugary foods and “simple carbs” like white rice or pasta and bread made with white flour, or she suffers from stress, anxiety or depression, then she may not lose weight at all. On the other hand, if she’s getting good rest, eating the “right” foods and taking steps to reduce her stress she might shed those pounds much faster.


It should be clear by now that physical activity is important for losing weight for the simple reason it helps burn up extra calories, and we need to burn up more calories to burn off fat. This brings up an interesting question: What’s the best activity to engage in when we really want to lose a lot of weight? Reemphasizing the importance of first consulting a doctor before engaging in any activity, a few of the best include running, rope jumping Tae Kwon Do, and walking at a fast pace. Other lower impact activities won’t burn it off as quickly, but still count. These include walking at a slow pace, bowling, canoeing, and Tai Chi. If you want to know how much you can expect to burn off from a given activity it will depend on your current weight and the frequency and length of time you participate.


I love biking in the summer.

Biking is another great exercise. Could you bike to work?

For a great chart showing how many calories you can expect to burn by doing different activities see this one at the Mayo Clinic. Don’t let the chart worry you or convince you your favorite activity isn’t good enough. With other factors being equal, any activity you choose is better than doing nothing. Plus, the more you do throughout the day the more you should expect success in shedding weight. We should also point out that everything you do adds up—that is, it doesn’t have to come all at one time. That means you could go for a walk in the morning, do a little gardening in the afternoon, and vacuum the house in the evening. It all counts!


Let’s say you’re now convinced it’s time to lose weight. How do you find an appropriate exercise routine? Here are some do’s and don’ts you may want to consider:




Do talk to you doctor first and get specific recommendations for physical activity. You’ll want to ask how long and how often you should plan to exercise each day or week and what activities you should specifically avoid. It’s also worth asking if a specific exercise or activity that interests you is appropriate. For example, a bad back or stiff joints combined with extra weight might rule out yoga, or a heart condition might rule out running. For more on this topic, see our post in this series, “Your Doctor: Get The Right Help Losing Weight”.


Lawn bowling isn't strenous, but it's better than sitting.

Every activity you participate in helps burn fat and some are always fun like lawn bowling, Frisbee, badminton, and ping pong.

Do something each and every day. Seriously, if you spend the majority of your day sitting, then the simple act of sitting less and moving more may be the best place to start. Try standing and stretching several times a day. Could you start walking a loop around the house or go up and down the block? Do you have a stationary bike or other exercise equipment you can use while watching TV? Wherever you start, the goal should be to gradually increase your overall level of activity. As you begin to lose weight your effort will begin paying rich dividends. Don’t be discouraged if it takes awhile. Remember, it took a lot of time to gain that weight and if you really want to keep it off it’ll take time to lose it.


Walk with a companion.

Need a walking buddy? A dog could be the answer.

Do find a friend or companion to exercise with you. There’s nothing that says you have to lose weight all on your own. In fact, the more you can make it a social as well as physical activity the more you’re bound to enjoy the process, and the more likely it will turn out a success. There’s another factor here, too: A friend or loved one who joins your effort can be critical for those days when you feel the least motivated—we simply make more effort to get up and get going when others are involved. If you really feel as if there’s no one available to assist you, you might consider getting a dog or volunteering to walk a neighbor’s dog. Dogs love walking or running and are great companions. It’s something to think about.


I love the water. I don't even realize I'm exercising.

Swimming is great activity, especially for those who suffer from achy joints and have trouble walking or running.

Do seek out activities you enjoy. True, you’ll burn off more calories running than walking, but not everyone is a runner or even finds it the least bit enjoyable. What’s more important than choosing a particular activity for weight loss is to choose something you take pleasure in, or that works best for your body. For example, if you suffer from joint pain, check out the water sport activities at your local pool. Deep water aerobics, swimming, water walking, water polo are all relatively painless ways to exercise. Try them and see. Interested in walking? Then be sure to see our post, “Walk Your Way To Better Health”.


Do mix it up. Our bodies have ways to play tricks on us. As we participate in the same exercise again and again there is less fat-burning benefit from it. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any benefit, rather there’s a point of diminishing returns. To get the most benefit from physical activity, try mixing it up by participating in a variety of sports. For example, combine muscle building exercises like weight training with fat burning exercises like running. Or for something less joint intensive mix walking with gardening. There’s another point in this. When we overuse certain muscle groups and underuse others we often end up in pain. For example, if you’re a walker who suffers from frequent lower back pain, the key to get rid of your problem may be as simple as doing a few exercises to strengthen your abs. That could mean adding crunches, planking or other core-strength exercise into your routine. For more on strength training see this article at the Mayo Clinic.


Golfing is a great activity for getting outdoors.

When you participate in games like golf you may not even realize you’re burning extra calories. Find activities you love.

Do try and break dysfunctional habits. Never underestimate the power of a habit. When we’re used to being inactive, there’s a very good chance we’ll stay that way unless we make a conscious effort to change up our routine. How might that look? Say we normally get up in the morning, rush through dressing and breakfast and scurry out the door. Try mixing in something new. For example, we might put a note on the alarm clock to remind us to do 10 pushups and stretch for 10 minutes before engaging in other morning rituals. Or say we normally come home from work and sit in front of the TV. Why not put a note on the remote so when we come home we’ll remember to sit on the exercise bike in front of the TV? Better yet, we can leave notes at key places in the house to remind us to go for a 30 minute walk around the neighborhood and get some fresh air. Whenever we discover we’re falling into an inactive habit (i.e. mostly sitting), the way out is to look for a way to change up the old routine. Even something as simple as getting up to stretch a few minutes or do a few sit ups or crunches could do the trick. Hey, why not take a walk, jump rope, play catch, go for a swim, play hide and seek with the kids or grandkids—the possibilities are endless. For more on breaking habits, see Habits: How They Form and How To Break Them at NPR.org or check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg at Amazon.




Don’t give up. If anyone tells you losing weight is easy they’re either exercise fanatics, have amazing willpower, or have an interest in selling you a product or service. Losing weight can feel difficult, but shedding those extra pounds translates directly into better health and feeling terrific. That makes the effort you expend worth it. Sure there will be days when you just can’t motivate yourself to get up and get moving. Just practice a little self-forgiveness, and then call a friend for support, or plan an active outing that doesn’t seem like so much work.


Maybe it's time to get moving.

There’s a reason this dog is so happy. He just came in from a walk.

Don’t make excuses. Excuses are easy. The trouble is you can make them until you’re blue in the face and never lose a pound. The way through is to discover the things that make the process easier. Engage in activities you enjoy. Do them with a friend. Mix it up to keep it interesting. Stay focused. Keep at it and eventually you’ll succeed.


Don’t set yourself up to fail. Thinking you can begin a new exercise routine that lasts an hour may be unreasonable. It depends on where you start, how old you are, how much you weigh and your overall level of conditioning. If you haven’t exercised in a while it could hurt. Start slow. Seek out activities like walking or swimming that create less stress on your joints. Don’t set unreasonable goals either for losing weight, or for the amount of time you need to exercise each day. Break your routine up into doable chunks. Some pain—like achy muscles—should be expected. Yet constant pain can be a sign you’re over-stressing your body. If you find you’re in constant pain, check in with the doctor, take a day off to rest, or try another activity that doesn’t stress your body in the same way.


Stay with us as our series continues. Next, we’ll begin talking about the best foods to boost your metabolism. You won’t want to miss it.

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