Are you exercising yourself fat?

Since part of the usual advice for reducing body fat is to get to the gym, exercising yourself fat may sound like an oxymoron. Unfortunately, for many well-intentioned exercisers, it is a real problem. Have you ever started an exercise routine, failed to see results, and quit? This article is for you!

First and foremost, let’s set fat aside for a moment and talk about health. I would like to propose that every action we take as humans either contributes to our health, or promotes disease. I am assuming, since you’re reading this blog post, that you are looking to expand your health.

One measure of how healthy our bodies are is inflammation. Medical doctors measure inflammation levels with something called C-reactive protein. While this is an accurate indicator of inflammation, you don’t necessarily need to have a blood test to determine for yourself if you could benefit from reducing your body’s inflammation and stress load. Symptoms of chronic inflammation are listed at, as follows:

-Ongoing joint/muscle pain


-High blood pressure or blood sugar problems

-Constant fatigue

-Ulcers/Irritable Bowel Syndrome

So let’s take a look at actions that promote or discourage inflammation:

Working long hours under excessive stress? Pro-inflammatory.

Eating a high-carbohydrate diet, filled with grains & sugar? Pro-inflammatory.

Not getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night? Pro-inflammatory.

Eating healthy fats? Anti-inflammatory.

Getting adequate sleep? Anti-inflammatory.

Avoiding fast foods, grains, and sugars? Anti-inflammatory.

What it boils down to, is that years and years of the pro-inflammatory choices can add up to chronic inflammation. Which means that even if you don’t currently have symptoms of high inflammation levels, if you have been making pro-inflammatory choices, you may be on your way to a problem.

So what does all of this inflammation stuff have to do with fat and exercise? Regular exercise tends to lower the markers of systemic inflammation, when balanced with adequate rest/recovery. And yes, the rest part is important! (The Journal of the American College of Cardiology has done extensive in-depth works on CRP response to exercise, if this topic greatly interests you.) So, in general, exercise would be considered an anti-inflammatory action. Except for when it’s not.

See, here’s the thing. If we want our bodies to burn our excess fat, we have to tell them to do that. But if you eat mostly carbohydrates for fuel, you are telling your body to burn carbohydrates. This is where the type of exercise you are doing gets really important. Because, conversely, the same is true. If you burn primarily carbohydrates during exercise, your body will want to refuel with—you guessed it—carbs!! And those high-carb foods will tell your body to store fat, instead of burning it, as well as increase your systemic inflammation levels.

Take a look at this graph:


There are a million others like it out there on the internet. These graphs inform you how to tell if you are in “cardio zone” or “fat-burning zone” based off of your heart rate. They originated so that exercisers could determine if they were working hard enough to expand their fitness. The only problem is, if your heart rate is elevated beyond fat-burning zone for an extended period of time, you are burning carbohydrates for fuel.

About now, you are probably feeling as confused as ever about how you should spend your gym time. I understand. I have been there. I had been an avid runner for over six years when I discovered that running actually wasn’t that healthy for me. So let’s turn to for some advice. Mark Sisson says our routine for optimal fitness should look like this:

-Lift heavy things. For me, this means kettlebells. They are my absolute favorite, both fun and functional. For many of you, this may mean crossfit lift techniques. For others of you, this may mean hoisting your children around, or carrying the groceries in one trip up a flight of stairs. Generally, strength training is most effective when done about 2-3 times per week. (Lifting routines that recommend more are usually focusing on different muscle groups on different days.)

-Move frequently at a slow pace. (This means that your heart rate should be elevated above resting, but not in cardio zone. The chart I posted can give you a good idea about where your “fat-burning zone” is, and if you want to get more specific, look into the studies of Philip Maffetone and the MAF test.) Some good options for this include: walking, hiking, leisurely bike rides, swimming, ultimate Frisbee, shooting hoops, and playing tag with the kids. There is really no wrong choice here, as long as whatever you choose is something you enjoy and will stick with.

-One day in every 10-14 days, do short spurts of activity at maximum effort. These spurts should be no longer than 10-15 minutes in duration, but at the end of the ten minutes, you should be breathing heavily, have a greatly elevated heart rate, and probably have broken a sweat. Sprints are one option. Kettlebell cardio is another option I like. Crossfit athletes can tell you about all sorts of ways to achieve maximum effort. But, once again, the best choice is the one you will stick with. Maybe you get out a couple times a month and run a mile at your top speed. Maybe you run up and down the stairs for ten minutes. Your imagination is your only limit!

I can’t tell you what the perfect exercise routine for you is, but I can pass my personal experience on to you. Two years ago, I trained for a full marathon. (26.2 miles) I successfully completed that goal, and I gained ten pounds of body fat in doing so. The times I have been my leanest, and most physically fit, I have been focusing less on running mileage and more on lifting weights. Just this Spring, I went from 38% body fat down to 30%, only to see my body fat start to increase again as I increased my running mileage to 20-25 miles/week.  For me, I feel like Mark’s advice rings true. A lot of other people are discovering the same truth.

Yet, since I have such a love for running, and it keeps me healthy in a number of other ways that do not relate to my body fat percentage, I have worked hard to train my body to burn fat for fuel during runs. This has involved a lot of work with my diet, time in the gym and on the road, and monitoring my heart rate during training. There is a healthy way to run, if that is what you really want to do. If you are interested in this approach, read The Paleo Diet for Athletes, or, as I said earlier, look into the works of Dr. Phil Maffetone.

As always, I encourage you to find what is most effective and enjoyable for you. I think that, for many people, that doesn’t involve a gym membership at all. So break out those rollerblades, circa 1997, dust off your skip-it, or throw a dance party in your living room. But whatever you do, don’t elliptical yourself into “cardio zone” for an hour, five days a week. 😉

Yours in health,




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