How Much Exercise do I Really Need to Lose Fat?
What you’ll learn in this blog post:
On average, 5-7 hours per exercise each week leads to the best balance of strength, hypertrophy and energy expenditure
Focusing 4-5 of those hours, or at least 80% of your activity, on strength training will have the greatest impact on physique, strength and fat loss
Balancing the rest of your activity with walks, runs, bike riding, bodyweight circuits, swimming, sprints, sled pushing and other mixed activity helps keep you fresh and engaged
Progressing by changing the weight, reps, rest periods, exercise selection and order help you get stronger, more muscular and burn the most calories. Keep adapting!
Starting a blog post with this sort of loaded question can get us into all sorts of trouble. I pose it, however, because it’s something I get asked a LOT; most people have no idea what kind of exercise, how long and how much they need to reach their goals.
Before I ever answer that question, I look to nutrition. You can make so much more headway with your current exercise plan if you simply address your dietary issues first: so many people under-eat protein, over-restrict calories, eat overall too many calories, skip meals, restrict and binge – the list goes on.
It’s pretty common for someone to ask about how much they need to exercise. When their nutrition is so far off, however, simply adding 2-3 hours of exercise a week won’t do much for them physique-wise. Now, that’s not to say they won’t improve their resting heart rate, strength, mobility or stability through added exercise – they will. But they won’t accrue the fat loss that ultimately drives their exercise in the first place.
In the blog to follow, I will cover “What Do I Really Need to Eat to Lose Fat”?
Some of the most common nutrition mistakes
-Over or under restricting calories
-Restricting/rewarding through exercise, or “earning” your food
-Eating very different on the weekends
Notice how most of these don’t deal with measuring calories, macros or timing. It simply comes down to having a general sense of portioning, being consistent and improving your habits and relationship with food.
How Much Exercise Do I Really Need?
You’ll hear a lot of conflicting studies, research and anecdotal evidence on this subject. Charles Poliquin once said that research always lags behind anecdotal evidence that coaches already know. This means if the research says strength training is the best exercise for fat loss, it’s something fitness professionals and strength coaches already know and practice.
By and large I think this is true. We can look to research to confirm things we already know, but rarely does it lead to jaw-dropping revelations. This is because in practice, it’s pretty easy to tell which casual exercise enthusiasts, athletes and figure competitors stay the leanest and have the most muscle.
The point most people miss
If there’s one thing research HAS shown us, it’s that exercise isn’t actually a great form of burning calories. The reason we see so many professional athletes and bodybuilders with muscular and lean physiques is because they put in so much time training, eating well and recovering that their energy expenditure (or calorie burn) from exercise is huge.
Imagine your 4-5 times per week lifting session. Feels pretty challenging, makes you sore. Pile some sport-specific conditioning 2-3 times per week, daily technique practice and drills or field practice on top of that. It’s common for athletes to exercise or train for a few hours DAILY, which means they are in a constant state of recovery and thus need a ridiculous amount of food.
In average populations, exercise doesn’t burn that many calories
Say WHAT?! Then why am I even exercising? No WONDER I’m not leaning out. It’s useless, I quit.
Did any of those thoughts cross your mind?
Before giving you some hope and answers, let me show how 60 minutes of running per day, four days a week, for 30 days would impact your fat loss.
That is only 5lbs loss for a 200lb man. Consider that he was previously not exercising, so his results are probably better than someone who already exercises.
When you consider 5lbs of body fat (each pound of fat contains 3,500 calories), he’s burned about 17, 500 calories which is 581 calories per day on average.
If he was already an avid exerciser, if would be less calories burned because he’d be more efficient. If he was a 140lb woman, it would be even less.
Also consider that in the weight lost, some of it could be water weight as well, so it might be less than 5lbs of body fat.
In a 93-day study, seven pairs of sedentary (no previous exercise) twins were subject to near daily cycling on a stationary bike for two hours. This probably was somewhere between 10 and 14 hours of exercise a week. For NINETY-THREE DAYS!
Weight loss (most of it was body fat) averaged 11lbs per person and ranged from 2lbs to 17lbs.
If the average weekly exercise was 12 hours, for 13 weeks, these individuals exercised about 156 hours. If you exercise four hours per week, for 13 weeks, you’ve exercise a total of 52 hours – or one third the amount of the group, with no guarantee of your fat loss results.
This is certainly distressing to those of you who feel like you train your butt off week in and week out with no fat loss. You leave the gym drenched in sweat, panting and exhausted 4-5 times a week yet you simply can’t make the fat loss happen!
Then you look at others. Maybe they’re lean and they run, lift weights, do Crossfit, or practice yoga. Maybe they do NO exercise besides yard work and still look lean. What’s the secret?
As someone who works with mostly women looking to lean out, the truth is hard to hear. You’ve got years, if not decades of B.S. telling you that exercising more is the key, lots of running and certainly no carbs!
Here’s the truth: nutrition first. Focus on the basics like getting adequate protein, not overeating and focusing on whole and unprocessed foods.
Second truth: you have to be consistent for more than three days. If you can’t look back on the past month and say you’ve eaten healthy for 90% or more of those days, then be more consistent.
Third truth: exercise doesn’t work the way you think it does.
What you NEED to know
When an athlete has a smart strength coach, the coach doesn’t program for calories burned. Nope. The coach programs for a specific physical OUTCOME or adaptation – things like:
-Increased speed or agility
-Improved mobility or stability
-Improved resting heart rate and the ability to pump more blood with each heart beat
-Oxygen intake and VO2 max
-Improved tissue quality
Did you see calories in there?
What exercise really does
Exercise is EXCELLENT for creating a physiological outcome or adaptation.
When I consult clients, most of them approach the gym as a means of “burning calories.” We already know exercise for the average person doesn’t burn many calories. How easy is it to replace the 300 calories expended in a 45 minute session with a handful of almonds? Too easy.
But again, that’s not the point.
You should exercise to get your body to perform a task BETTER
Increasing your 1 RM in the deadlift
Doing 15 pull-ups
Improving how long you can run while maintaining a certain heartrate
Improving your 3 mile speed
Making your muscle larger through bodybuilding-type work (being able to do more total reps)
Swinging a heavy kettlebell for 15 reps in less time than last week
Increasing your broad jump
Exercise is the way to these goals or outcomes. The body is VERY adaptive and will adapt to a task you give it, but it will always try to do it by expending the least amount of calories possible – it’s simply a survival trait. And it wants to adapt to the exercise because the better you get at that exercise, the LESS calories it takes to perform it.
If you get your chest bigger, it won’t take as many calories to perform the same amount of pushups.
If you get your resting heart rate down, it won’t take as many calories to do steady aerobic work.
When you factor in age, sex, hormones, individual resting metabolic rates, digestion and organ function, how many calories you burn at rest and during exercise vary greatly from person to person.
Do things that challenge you but allow you to recover
If your workouts are getting worse or you haven’t improved on something (or everything) in the past 3-6 months, then your training isn’t providing enough of a challenge to cause an adaptation.
Doing activities that require adaptation will expend the most calories. That’s why running the same 5 miles over time nets you less and less results.
This is exactly why lifting weights is one of the best ways to become lean and muscular. You can constantly challenge yourself with more weight, more reps, less rest, different exercises and so on that you are constantly adapting and thus burning the most amount of calories.
Sprinting, jogging, walking, yoga, pushing the sled, group classes, swimming and biking are all excellent contributions. These secondary activities help to improve your heart, lungs and more – but they also help to expend some energy in ways that don’t interfere with your main activity. Simply doing MORE of the same activity gets old and soon loses its effect. Bottom line, strength training should be the crux.
How much is best?
Now that we’ve made a case for not using exercise solely to burn calories, we need to acknowledge that exercise is still absolutely crucial for achieving your ideal physique. Remember that exercise will still cause a small daily calorie burn that over time, combined with sound nutrition habits will lead to fat loss!
Anecdotally, 5-7 hours per week seems to be the sweet spot for most people. Any less than 5 means you are missing out on opportunities to challenge your body and make it adapt. Too much more and the average person won’t recover how they need or will burn themselves out on one type of exercise.
At least 3-4 out of those 5-7 hours, or 80% should be strength training. It simply produces the best changes in fat loss and muscle growth plus helps to address posture, mobility, stability and even some endurance and heart rate changes.
So if you currently exercise 3 times a week and only 2 are strength training, instead, you’d want to strength train at LEAST 3 times and round out the 4th or 5th hour with a mix of brisk walking, jogging, bike riding, bodyweight circuits etc.
Each of those doesn’t have to be an hour-long session. You can strength train 4 times, go on two 30 minute walks and do one half hour jog. Or three strength training sessions with one hour run and a 45 minute circuit class that includes weight and bodyweight exercises.
Choose exercise variations that you enjoy and look forward to. Strength training is such an important piece – but it doesn’t need to be JUST the barbell. DBs, KBs and more can be used. Progressing is the name of the game. If you’ve been doing a 50lb DB goblet squat for 8 reps for the past 3 months, it’s time to add some weight! If you’ve been swinging the 32kg bell for the same time frame and it’s getting easy, it’s time to progress!
The best adaptations come from weekly changes, whether a change in reps, sets, weight, rest etc. The body adapts quickly so every single session, SOMETHING should change, even if it’s just how fast you complete the workout. If you get through your exercise for the day and it was the same thing you’ve done before, you are missing out.
J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Nov;23(8):2377-80. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b8d4e8.
http://www.vox.com/2016/4/28/11518804/weight-loss-exercise-myth-burn-calories v1.4, January 1, 2015, 2016 Vox Media, Inc. All Rights Reserve