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Though you trudge away on the treadmill and scrape by on seeds and sprouts, the bathroom scale refuses to budge. But actually, the formula for fat loss is quite simple.

Self-proclaimed health “experts” and hokey fitness gimmick infomercial hosts promise you can cull the kilos (or pare away the pounds) by exercising only three minutes a day.

Then there’s the fine print: Losing “weight” is easy.   LOSING FAT and keeping it off can be downright difficult.  But don’t despair; there is hope! Arm yourself with these fat trimming lifestyle tips and keep it off for life!

Fat Loss Principles For Life

1) Banish Your Bathroom Scale

First things first: banish your bathroom scale and only take it out once every other week.  It is your fat loss foe! It is a traitor that will deceive you (unless you know how to keep it in line).

The media, food companies, and woo-pushing quacks have brainwashed everyone to focus on “weight loss” instead of FAT LOSS with little to no consideration for body composition. This sells products, but it’s the wrong message.

Anyone can “lose weight” by starving themselves on a fad diet but, while you might seemingly “lose weight” on the scale in the beginning, this is not fat loss. It’s mostly glycogen (stored carbohydrate in the muscle), water, muscle, and maybe a little fat.

And guzzling a so-called “skinny teatox” loaded with laxatives and diuretics might fool you into thinking you’ve lost fat, but you’ll quickly regain the water and fecal weight as soon as you stop using it.


2) Buy Into Body Composition, Not Just Body Weight

Exercise. Focus on building and maintaining valuable muscle. Muscle is very metabolically active and pays a higher caloric “rent” to sustain itself (even at rest). Fat tissue, on the other hand, is something of a metabolic freeloader which burns comparatively fewer calories.

If after a few months your scale weight hasn’t changed much, you might notice that your clothes fit better.  This is usually a result of an increase in muscle and decrease in fat.

Have a look and compare these two cross sectional thigh scans.

thigh_with_fatthigh_with_fat2The first image shows a strong dense muscle with minimal fat penetrating into the muscle.  The second image shows a weak, wasting muscle which is infiltrated with fat.  The overall surface area is similar, but you can see the drastic difference in composition.

3) Don’t Trust Fibbing Exercise Machines 

Ever seen those “fat burning” or “cardio” buttons on treadmills and stationary bikes?  The irony is the so-called “fat burning” button can keep you fat and the cardio button will help trim your gut and butt.  This is where it gets confusing so pay attention.

In the image below, you can see that a lower intensity (lower VO2) burns proportionally more fat as a fuel source during exercise (fat burn button). The trade off is that you also burn less overall calories per unit of time compared to higher intensities.

At higher exercise intensities (cardio button), you burn more carbohydrate (sugar) as a fuel source (blue dots in the image), but you burn more calories per unit of time.

cho_percentages

Comparing apples to apples, if you did 10 minutes on the treadmill on the low-intensity fat loss setting versus 10 minutes on the the higher-intensity cardio setting, you’d actually be better served by the cardio setting.

Independent of the fuel source during exercise, your overall energy (calorie) expenditure is higher. The energy deficit created by exercise is later justified by the body pulling fat out of storage (even when not exercising).

In the long-term, you are served much better by exercising at higher intensities per unit of time and maximizing the energy burn than focusing on which fuel source you’re using during exercise.   The overall CUMULATIVE calorie deficit is what matters and that’s what’s going to have you looking good for the long haul!

If you’re new to exercise and out of shape, then you may need to start off at a slow pace in order to allow your body to adapt.  Progress slowly and work up to higher intensities over time to maximise intensity to enhance energy expenditure.

4) Build Your Fitness Foundation

Following on from above, if you’re completely new to exercise, develop your fitness foundation slowly and gradually progress to higher intensities. Doing too much too soon may leave you sore and discourage you from continuing. Check out my 10 quick tips to get off the exercise rollercoaster and set your fitness foundation in stone.

Start off at a leisurely pace on the bike or treadmill for no more than 20 minutes and do this 3 to 4 days per week.

Depending on how you feel, increase your duration by 5-10 minutes per session each week until you can do 45-60 minutes of non-stop cardio exercise.


5) Integrate Intense Intervals

With your fitness foundation in place, start cranking up the intensity by integrating intervals into your routine (this is key for fat loss). Intervals are higher intensity bursts interspersed within your cardio routine designed to raise your heart rate and crank up the calorie burning control knob.

During your cardio exercise, start off with 1 to 2-minute high intensity bursts and then give yourself 3-4 minutes of active recovery at a lower intensity (keep walking or pedaling).

Perform your intervals at an intensity high enough that you can barely speak to the person next to you, preferably an exercise partner who shares your same fat loss goals.

6) Work Up to High Intensity For Longer

Once you’ve established your fitness foundation and incorporated intervals into your regimen, try to maintain higher intensities for longer durations.  The longer you maintain the higher intensities, the more energy you burn, the more fat you pull out of storage, and the greater your overall fat loss.

7) Lift Weights (or Body Weight). Muscle = Metabolism

Muscle is the machinery that drives your metabolism.  Resistance training is known to enhance muscle size, structure, and function all of which cause a cascade of health benefits.  It doesn’t mean that you need to grunt and groan amongst bespandexed gym gorillas.

Many of the fitness boot camps leverage on calisthenic style exercises which mostly use body weight for resistance.  Muscles don’t have eyes.  As long as you’re stressing your muscles at a level above and beyond that which they’re normally accustomed, you can expect improvements in your appearance and, of course, your metabolic health.

8) Focus on Small Changes For Big Improvements

Avoid radical changes in your diet, as this only sets you up for failure.  Focus instead on making tiny nutrition changes you can live with.  For example, try cutting down on soda, chips, and sweets.

If you drink a liter per day, wean your way down to 500 milliliters, then to 250, and eventually to water.  One little change can translate to big changes in both scale weight and appearance over the long haul.

If you consume 250 calories less and expend 250 calories more with exercise each day, over one calendar year you’d could plausibly strip off about 23 kilograms (50 pounds) of body fat.

Obviously the actual amount of fat loss will vary due to inter-individual differences in genes, habits, and behavioral considerations (see my article: Obesity Genes: Does your DNA predict Body Fat and Weight?).  Small changes are important because they minimise the “famine response” and keep you off the exercise rollercoaster (and then some). As a general rule, healthy FAT LOSS is approximately 1 – 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kg) per week.

9) “Incidentally Speaking,” Waste Energy with Incidental Activity

The emerging science of inactivity physiology shows that we need to be as inefficient as humanly possible as often as possible.

  • Waste energy at all times of the day outside of your structured exercise sessions.
  • Avoid life’s shortcuts.
  • Nix the elevators. Opt for the stairs.
  • Walk up those steep hills.
  • Take public transit and weigh yourself down with a laptop case or backpack.
  • Use a handbasket at the supermarket instead of a trolley (shopping cart).
  • Use a standing workstation instead of a sit-down desk.

The more energy you blow throughout the day, the greater your overall fat loss.  Every little bit counts and it all contributes to the “bottom line.”


10) Buddy Up

Sure, misery loves company, but so does exercise!  Identify your supporters and saboteurs.   Avoid the saboteurs who will attempt to undermine and derail your efforts out of jealousy.   Surround yourself with positive, supportive people who will either exercise with you on your journey or play the role of cheerleader!  It may also be helpful to join online support networks which will allow you to share your experience with other like-minded people who may be going through the same thing.

11) Make it Fun

It’s the age-old question: What’s the best exercise in the world?  The one you LIKE and the one you’ll do on a regular basis!  I see lots of trainers and exercisers alike debating over which exercise is best, but when it comes right down to it, you just need to find something that will make you more active.   If you like to walk, then walk.  If you like to ride your bike around the neighborhood, then ride your bike.  As mentioned above, intersperse some intervals to crank up the calorie burning control knob!

12) Unfriend the Media

The media is NOT your friend.  Cancel your cable TV subscription or at least stop watching it 20 hours per week. Nix the fluffy celebrity gossip magazines. These types of publications are loaded with unrealistic body images that are merely airbrushed photos meant to provide false hope and sell copies.

13) Fire Your Health Guru

The popularity of social media has led to rampant proliferation of self-styled “health gurus” like the so-called Food Babe and David “Avocado” Wolfe, both of whom have gone down in flames for making outlandish claims with no health science training.

While we all want to believe claims that health nirvana is just one miracle diet, supplement, or infomercial gadget away, the grim reality is that none of this works.

Guru promises of simple solutions to complex problems will likely leave you with complex problems without simple solutions. While not always a guarantee, checking for university qualifications in a health science can increase your chances of getting reliable information that will help you adopt a healthy lifestyle for life.

DRUM ROLL…… THE SECRET TO PERMANENT FAT LOSS

In all my years as a diet and exercise professional, I can tell you one thing with absolute unequivocal certainty: the secret to permanent fat loss is that THERE IS NO SECRET.

Every client I’ve worked with who has lost weight and kept it off did not rely on slimming wraps (i.e., It Works body wraps). They simply committed themselves to a healthy lifestyle and then stuck with it for the long term. Thing is, we’ve known it all along.

Even the ancient Greeks knew it.  Hippocrates is quoted as saying, “If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.”

More recent evidence of this can be found on Dr. Rena Wing’s National Weight Control Registry at the University of Rhode Island.

As much as we’d all like to believe in “wishful shrinking,” miracle diets, pills, powders, and infomercial gadgets do not work.  If they did we’d all be thin by now!

Bottom line:  consistency in doing the right thing will always win out over quick-fix fad diets and gimmicks.  Stay the course!  

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Dr Bill Sukala

Dr Bill Sukala is a Sydney-based health science communicator, clinical exercise physiologist, health writer, speaker, and media health commentator. He has published health articles in major publications around the world and has given invited lectures across five continents. Click here for more information or follow Bill on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

21 Comments

  1. Kathi

    Completely brilliant! For the first time, I’m reading sound and applicable information for those starting out. PhD or not, thank you for posting this. I particularly appreciate your notes on the media and the cardio machines.

    I am now a fan (but I promise I will not stalk you).
    K

    Reply
    • Bill Sukala, PhD

      Thanks for your comment Kathy. Fan or stalker, I’m ok with both!

      Reply
  2. Kim Carmen Walsh

    Thank you…fantastic article!!

    Reply
  3. Sophia

    Thank you for providing such evidence-based articles and sound critiques to weight loss gimmicks. I was wondering if you can comment on a new fitness craze called Boogie Box Fitness which has appeared on multiple shows,tv stations, and even Dr. Oz. The CEO claims their aerobic routines can burn 11,000 calories in 1 hour. Everyone might as well give up their treadmills and hop aboard. Although I agree any aerobic exercise is beneficial, it sounds too good to be true. They support their claim by being rested at USC biokinesiology and PHysical therapy lab being hooked up to masks while exercising with the testers(look like students) verifying that the routine works all muscle groups. Is this study valid?

    I enjoy your articles and would truly love to hear your feedback on this one.

    Reply
    • Bill Sukala, PhD

      Thanks for your kind words, Sophia. The claim of 11,000 calories in a single hour appears to be excessive. I’d certainly be curious to see the science behind that! The mention of multiple TV stations, Dr. Oz, etc is certainly good marketing fodder, but seldom translates to responsible science-based evidence. The website is a little bit over the top in some ways, but I think I’ll need to take a deeper look at all available materials to see if they’re taking liberties and over-embellishing some claims for profit.

      I really appreciate your visiting my site and taking time out to write a thoughtful response.

      Yours in health,
      Bill

      Reply
  4. Sophia

    Sorry, correction, meant to write tested not rested (darn the automatic word spell entry on cell phones)
    They support their claim by being tested at USC biokinesiology and PHysical therapy lab
    The video is posted on their website as a YouTube video.
    Thank you for your comments in advance.
    Sophia

    Reply
  5. Sophia

    Correction: 1100 cal/hr which still seems high.
    I look forward to and know I  will be enlightened by your feedback. I thought the YouTube video at the lab was interesting. Although the instructors were performing at an intense level, I doubt they are that intense when teaching an actual class. I’m curious How do they extrapolate the nber fr the study.Sorry for my mistake with the calories.

    Reply
    • Bill Sukala, PhD

      Hi Sophia,
      I’ve had a look at the video and, while my objective was not to slam the product, there were a few things that stuck out to me:

      1) While it is true that this “testing” took place at USC, it did not appear to be anything official. More like an informal get together with some undergrad students to tinker around with the metabolic cart (mask on face).

      2) They only “tested” it on 3 people. Any scientific study with any semblance of statistical validity is probably going to need more than 3 subjects.

      3) There is no comparison group to evaluate the effects of this form of exercise vs. any other form of aerobic exercise (i.e., high intensity running, high-impact aerobics, cycling, etc).

      4) To my knowledge, I don’t think the results of this “study” are published in a peer-reviewed journal. Doing so would ensure it’s been subjected to some level of scientific scrutiny/academic rigor.

      5) It is possible to expend 1100 calories in an hour, though it is quite high. This would be determined from the gas analyzer they used. If you know a person’s VO2, then you can extrapolate out their calorie expenditure.

      6) The entire video and the dialogue appeared to be one long, shining advertorial. The purported tester (the kid with the hat) was anything but impartial and was ranting and raving about how great this form of exercise was without any consideration for how it would compare next to any other high impact exercise.

      7) No doubt someone doing this form of exercise would burn calories and lose weight. BUT, you have to remember that anyone who is completely inactive, deconditioned, and unfit will improve their health and fitness even if they lifted bricks all day. It’s not a miracle, just basic exercise physiology overload adaptation.

      Anyway, I hope this helps. Thanks again for bringing this to my attention.
      Cheers,
      Dr. Bill

      Reply
  6. Sophia

    Sorry last comment was wondering how they extrapolate the number from the study. (I dislike the autoword entry function of cell phones) Promise I will just use a regular computer next time to avoid further mistakes. Sincerely, Sophia

    Reply
  7. Brenda

    Excellent article! I threw out my scale in May 2009 and haven’t looked at my weight since. For doctor’s appointments, I let the staff know in advance not to tell me my weight, and I look away from the scale while being weighed. My tool is a cloth measuring tape and the fit of my clothes. Giving up the scale improved my self esteem and conquered the addiction to checking my weight several times a day.

    Reply
  8. Total wellness

    Hi
    Very informative article. I have gained a lot of weight due to sitting for long hours before computer and avoiding daily exercise routine. Now I will pay more attention to my fitness goals.

    Reply
  9. Tina M.

    Well now here is the truth about it all Thank you. Now if I can just get motivated enough to stick with it, I might make it.

    Reply
  10. Sam

    Hi, could you elaborate on why the scale should be banished? In my experience, the scale was both a great motivator as well as an alarm-bell when more self-discipline was required.

    Reply
    • Dr Bill Sukala

      Hi Sam,
      Thank you for your comment. My point regarding the scale is that, while it has its place, it should not be relied upon as the sole gauge of your progress.
      Remember that:
      1) The scale does not differentiate between fat and muscle weight
      2) Daily fluctuations in body weight due to water can be disillusioning for those who are constantly glued to the scale

      You sound like you have a good handle on the scale and how to make it work for you. Unfortunately, many others don’t have your understanding and, if their scale weight goes up overnight, it is viewed as a catastrophic failure.

      Reply
  11. William Madison

    There are no magic foods. Some foods may help you suppress your appetite a little. Some other foods may slightly increase your metabolic rate. Unfortunately, the effect is miniscule. The only way to really lose fat is to consume fewer calories than you burn. This way your body will tap into the fat stores to get the energy it needs.

    Reply
  12. Annette Grover

    My problem is when I get home from work all my energy is gone….I need something to boost my energy without caffeine and boost my mood…any suggestions would be appreciated. I use to teach high impact aerobics years ago which did nothing but injure my back…I love kickboxing and when I was doing it regularly(2/3 times a week) I was in the best shape of my life, eating pretty clean but nothing strict..I need something for energy without making me Whaley..please offer a safe suggestion, I want to kick box again.

    Reply
    • Dr Bill Sukala

      Hi Annette,
      Thanks for your comment. I can certainly appreciate what it’s like to have no energy left at the end of the day. When you say your energy is gone at the end of the day, are you referring to being physically exhausted or mentally exhausted? Sometimes the latter can be even worse because it leaves you not wanting to do anything except just sit and relax to quiet down your mind.

      When it comes to anything in life, I find that it’s important to build the most important things into your lifestyle so that’s a part of your routine instead of something you do in addition to it. Have you considered finding a kickboxing class in the morning before work or at lunchtime? In the morning, it could be just the right way to start the day off with a bang. Or if at lunch, it could help put a bit of wind in your sails for the rest of the afternoon.

      On the food front, you might want to track how much you’re eating throughout the day to see if you’re getting 1) enough overall calories; and 2) enough of the good stuff (complex carbs, fruits, veggies, lean protein, healthy fats etc). I have found when working with clients that many people tend to under eat and find themselves particularly exhausted at the end of the day because they run out of steam. It’s usually accompanied by overtraining and under-recovering too. Based on what you’ve written, I can’t say that this is the case for you, but these are some things to consider. For example, if you’re only taking in 800 to 1000 calories per day, then I would imagine you’re running out of energy.

      Bottom line: build your exercise into your routine, perhaps at a better time like morning or afternoon, and use an app like My Fitness Pal to track your food intake to get a gauge on how much you’re ACTUALLY consuming. Measure it out if you have to (using a food scale) and then you can readjust accordingly. Hope this helps.
      Kind regards, Bill

      Reply
  13. ric

    Thanks, Dr. Bill for this great article. I came across this recent new book since I don’t ever want to give up on a weight loss journey! Knowing the current research makes it a lot easier to lose weight. Have you read about the new discoveries to help weight loss, like the “fat switch” in your brain or how many days it takes to make a new diet a genuine habit for the rest of your life? Being aware of the latest makes it a lot easier to lose and stay that way.

    😀Please share with everyone who needs it. I went from one diet to another so decided to research and found this new book and it worked. I encourage everyone to do the same. It took me two-three months but I’ve finally started losing and have lost 16 kgs so far.

    Reply
    • Dr Bill Sukala

      I’m going to have to call bullshit here. This is a bit of a suspicious comment and I’ve removed the link. After doing some forensic online research, I don’t believe that Bruce Miller is a real person, but is probably just a pen name for a reasonably thin lawyer named Graeme who is based around Newmarket/Newton in Auckland. Considering the IP address for this post is also Newmarket, then it is plausible that Ric is also Graeme and this is just a veiled promotional post.

      Finally, considering “Bruce” and Team Golfwell have no online footprint in the health research space and are also the authors of “Make Money Online and Increase Traffic,” and a number of other books just created to make a buck, I’m inclined to think this book is just another attempt to cash in on desperate people looking to lose weight. If you’re looking for promo links, this isn’t the site to try your luck.

      Reply
  14. Ella

    Regarding fasting and starving, this is not quite what I have learned from Dr Jason Fung (Canadian nephrologist) book “The complete guide to fasting”. Your advice is very sound, but it is more like to maintain, what if the person needs to loose over 100 lb. and have been on yo-yo dieting?
    In that book it states that during fasting slowdown in metabolism is very small compare to lo calories diet. Also no massive muscle mass loss happens, very small. Hope you can comment on that. After weight goal is reached after few cycles of fasting it is easily maintained with healthy life style.

    Reply
    • Dr Bill Sukala

      Hi Ella,
      Thanks for your comment. I’ve worked in this field for nearly 30 years and have seen plenty of people make small and realistic changes they could live with to achieve significant fat loss (and keep it off). I don’t know Jason Fung, but in keeping an open mind, I would be curious to review the evidence he cites to support his contentions that fasting (euphemism for starving) doesn’t slow down the metabolism and doesn’t result in muscle loss (or minimal muscle loss). If you can post any of those references here for my review, I’d like to see what he cites to support his claims. I should also note that I’ve run thousands of DEXA body composition scans, many of them on people who either fasted or at very low calorie diets and, on their follow up visit they all demonstrated significant muscle loss. I would also like to call your attention to the National Weight Control Registry and some of their research (http://www.nwcr.ws/research/) which shows that making small sustainable changes can result in weight loss and weight maintenance. Finally, when it comes to weight loss, one of the smoking guns with any regimen and whether or not it works is adherence. Anyone can fast or go on a calorie restricted diet, but the end results and long-term maintenance thereof always come down to one’s ability to stick with it. And sadly man people do, in fact, fall off the wagon. There are always going to be a few cases that can be put in the marketing limelight and pointed out as case studies, but it’s important to look at these issues across the board on a large scale. I could starve people on a pigs feet and mayonnaise diet, take before and after pictures, and then put them in my book or on my website and say that the pigs feet and mayo diet is THE solution, but behind the scenes, the truth would still be that adherence was terrible and about 90% of people didn’t get results. Feel free to get back to me with those references Jason cites. I’ll be curious to have a look. Kind regards, Bill

      Reply

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