There are more myths about fat loss than there are in Tolkien’s Ring trilogy and Homer’s Odyssey combined. Actually, that’s not true, neither are half the things you’ve heard about effective weight loss, MR goes in search of some answers.
words: Jon Edwards
Summer’s here and it’s caught you by surprise. During the dark winter months it’s been cold enough to hide that flab under layers of clothing, but D-Day is rapidly approaching - the moment when you head to the seaside and you have to take your shirt off. Frankly, it’s a terrifying prospect (for you and the people around you) because that laundry bag you call a body will be revealed in all its retina-wrenching glory. People will flee the beach like that scene in Jaws where someone thinks they’ve spotted the shark.
If you’ve only just started hitting the treadmill or pounding the pavements during your lunch break, that’s a start at least. But now is the time for a serious plan of action. The problem is how to sift through the frankly bewildering array of tips, tricks, facts, figures and advice out there in fitness world - some of it good, some of it contentious, but some of it downright misleading.
Here at Men’s Running, we feel your pain (and we don’t want to see you with your top off either). So to help steer you through the murky waters of weight loss towards the perfect beach physique, we expose 10 of the most common weight loss myths and ask the experts for their advice on getting a body that will turn heads at the beach – and not just because people fear you’re going to fall on them or you’re blocking the sun with your bulk.
1. Fat is your enemy
On the contrary, consuming the right fats can actually help you burn fat. Before you go reaching for the biscuit tin, however, Patrick Holford, nutritionist and author of The Optimum Nutrition Bible, explains: “Increase the amount of essential fats you eat, but keep down your saturated fat intake. One of the greatest myths in conventional weight control is that ‘a calorie is a calorie.’ This is untrue. A calorie of saturated fat has a very different outcome from a calorie of an essential fat that is used by the brain, immune system, hormone system and cardiovascular system. Omega 3 essential fats, principally from fish and flax seeds, actually counteract some of the negative effects of insulin resistance.”
Including foods like nuts, avocados and fish at meal times can actually make you feel fuller for a longer time period, making you less likely to reach for that chocolate bar later on. “Dieting strategies that incorporate significant amounts of Omega 3 fats help to promote weight loss,” adds Holford.
2. You should do cardio on an empty stomach to burn more fat
Skipping breakfast before you dash bleary eyed to the gym? Then think again, according to a study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition, Exercise and Metabolism. In the study, eight healthy young men performed two workouts; workout A which was 36 minutes of slow cardio at 65 per cent maximum heart rate in the morning without eating. Workout B was the same but after a small meal.
Twenty four hours after exercise, the results showed that eating before cardio increased both calorie burning AND fat burning. The study concluded: “Fasting before exercise does not enhance lipid utilisation, rather physical activity after a light meal is advisable.” So make time to wolf down some scrambled eggs before hitting the treadmill.
3. You should exercise in the fat burning zone
In a strictly scientific sense, these claims are true because working at a lower intensity requires less quick energy and a higher percentage of fat is burned. But, and it’s a big but, while you might burn a larger proportion of total calories as fat when you exercise in your fat burning zone, you burn fewer calories overall by exercising at such a low intensity.
“When you increase your workout intensity and get out of your so called ‘fat-burning zone’, you burn more total calories and, as a result, the amount of fat burned increases,” explains strength and conditioning coach Craig Ballantyne of Turbulence Training. “Also, the ‘fat-burning zone’ training doesn’t put turbulence on your muscles so you don’t burn many calories in the post-exercise time period.
“Slow, boring cardio workouts are not the best way to lose belly fat. If you truly want to change your body, you need to use high intensity interval training. Research shows that resistance training and interval training can help you gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. Plus you can burn belly fat and boost your post-exercise metabolism.”
4. You have to do cardio for 20 minutes before you burn fat
Once you’ve been exercising for 20 minutes, your body has made the shift to using a higher percentage of fat for fuel. But again if you are trying to lose weight, it’s about the total number of calories burned, not necessarily the fuel source. Your body is always burning fat; it’s simply a question of how much.
“When I hear this, I picture a fat-burning switch in my body that turns on only after I’ve been doing cardio for 20 minutes,” says Craig Ballantyne. “But what if I only exercise for 19 minutes 59 seconds? Are you telling me that I won’t have burned any fat? That’s ridiculous. We need to be more concerned with our 24-hour metabolism, not how much fat or even how many calories are burned during the workout.”
If you aren’t working out for a long period, you may still burn more total calories and, therefore more fat calories, working out harder.
5. Lift light weights with high reps to burn fat
Runners who are trying to become lean and toned often assume that lifting lighter weights for loads of reps is helping them burn fat. Reality check - it isn’t; if you want that lean body you’ve always dreamed of, you need larger muscles and less fat. The key to really cranking up your metabolism is to challenge your body by recruiting as many muscle fibres as possible through heavier lifting.
When you do high rep training, you’re only working the smallest, weakest muscle fibres that have little impact on boosting your metabolism, unless you’re prepared to spend half a day in the gym performing the same exercise. Although high rep training improves muscular endurance, to shift that weight round your middle you need to target all your muscles when you lift weights.
Incorporate full body circuits, which stimulate all your muscles, with short rest periods between exercises, into your weekly training programme to get the results you’re really after.
6. You can spot reduce fat
Sorry guys, but if you’ve spent hours in the gym knocking out hundreds of crunches and sit-ups in search of a six-pack you could bounce pennies off, you’ve been wasting your time. Fat loss spot reduction is simply not possible.
When you exercise, your body utilises energy stores from all over the body, not just one place. “It’s a myth that doing a lot of high reps on a single body part will burn fat in that region of the body,” says personal trainer Shannon Cunningham. “It just does not work like that. Science shows that 10 well-executed repetitions of sit-ups only burns nine calories. To burn off half a pound of stored body fat, you would have to do over 2,000 reps of an exercise.”
Overall body fat must be reduced to lose fat in any particular area. So focus on a balanced full body workout that helps create a calorie deficit. “Compound, comprehensive exercises like the clean and press will result in high calorific expenditure,” says Cunningham.
7. You can’t overcome genetics
It’s true we are each born with different strengths and weaknesses and different levels of resilience. Some of us carry extra pounds or put on weight more easily, then there are other people who seem to be able to stuff their faces with whatever they want, whenever they want and not put on an ounce of fat, the swines. But forget looking daggers at your brother with the lean runner’s body, by training and eating sensibly, you can beat your genes and stay slim and healthy.
Tim Ferriss, best selling author of The 4-Hour Body, says: “If you are overweight and your parents are overweight, the inclination is to blame genetics, but this is only one possible explanation. Did fatness genes get passed on, or was it overeating behaviour? Even if you are predisposed to being overweight, you’re not predestined to be fat. I believe an average person can change his body shape beyond all recognition. I’ve seen too much evidence to think otherwise.”
8. Lifting weights will bulk you up
A lot of runners are wary of weight training because they are worried they will put on size and ‘bulk up’. But lifting weights helps preserve and build muscle which will, in turn, indirectly contribute to fat loss. The body uses energy in the form of fat to maintain muscle mass, which is more metabolically active than fat. In other words, extra calories are burned in order to keep the muscle.
Increased muscle makes you stronger and builds endurance which means you will be able to run and train longer and harder to burn more calories. Don’t be fooled into thinking that lifting heavy weights will turn you into a gym meathead. The bodybuilder’s physique is only achieved through a high calorie diet and a disciplined long term weight training regime.
9. Eating at night makes you put on weight
It’s important to remember that it’s how much you eat, not necessarily when you eat, that is the key to weight loss.
Whether you put on or lose weight is dictated by the number of calories versus the number you burn. So overeating in the evening on carb-heavy snacks is no more damaging to your weight loss aspirations than overeating in the morning. A calorie is a calorie no matter when you eat it.
The myth stems from the fact that we tend to consume most of our calories towards the end of the day because we quite often go for much of the first half depriving our bodies of sufficient calorific intake.
“Removing night-time carbs is a simple calorie-cutting technique that hides the real reason you lose weight,” says nutritionist Alan Aragon. “If removing one food from one period of the day was all it took to lose weight, then everybody would be thin. The truth is, removing carbs from the evening will help you lose weight, but with one big caveat: If you tend to overeat on carb-heavy foods late at night. If that’s not a problem then restricting your carbs in the evening isn’t going to accelerate fat loss.”
10. You need fat-burning supplements to shed weight
If it sounds too good to be true... well, you know how the rest of that goes. The only effective way to lose weight is to burn fat by reducing you calorific intake, exercising properly or, perhaps most effectively, a combination of both.
Supplements are just that - supplements to smart eating. There are no miracle pills, snake oils, potions or creams that will build muscle or torch layers of fat while you sit on the sofa stuffing your face with Super Size chips and a bargain bucket. There are pills that act as appetite suppressants, but drinking more water daily will have the same effect in staving off hunger and your body needs good old H2O in order to burn fat.
HIIT fat-loss hard
If you want to lose weight, you have to stick with an exercise regime and eat right consistently. You need to make losing fat a part of your life. The good news is fat loss does become easier when you ingrain good habits into your lifestyle.
You need to train hard for 30 minutes with high intensity cardio exercise four days a week. I recommend pushing yourself with high intensity interval training (HIIT) every cardio session. HIIT is hugely effective because it speeds up your metabolism - the rate at which your body burns calories. Try not to make it complicated; push yourself so that your heart rate is increased and you are breathing hard. Intensity is the name of the game and it varies from person to person, but you will know if you are working your muscles, lungs and heart with high intensity.
Push yourself a little bit harder each session with your intervals and your body will be forced to adapt accordingly and shed fat effectively. It is beneficial to keep a journal of your HIIT workouts so that you can track your progress.
I am a huge fan of ‘wind sprints’. Sprinting for 250 metres, taking a two to three minute recovery at moderate jogging pace and then repeating eight to 10 times. This method is remarkably effective at fat loss.Shannon Cunningham is a physical trainer and lifestyle specialist based in London and the founder of his own SC/PT fitness system. For more information go to www.shannoncunninghampt.com