Are you burning fat during your long walks?
Long walks, at light to moderate effort, are an ideal ‘workout’ for those who are unfit and just starting an exercise program. Walking is also adequate at any fitness level to help lower and maintain your “numbers” (cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc.). It also gets your blood circulating and lubricates your joints. And studies find walking is good for the mind: it helps you relax and control stress and can lower the severity and frequency of depression.
But will those long walks utilize stored body fat? Unfortunately, it's not effective for everyone. Any type of activity is better than none and walking is certainly one of those activities with potential to improve health, as mentioned above. However, if you have specific health goals, like utilizing more stored fat or improving your fitness levels, your long walks won't be as effective in achieving those goals. Therefore you may need a more specific activity and plan than just walking everyday.
Being in a "fat-burning zone" is misleading and generally misunderstood. Many believe we can utilize (or "burn") more stored fat when doing longer, less intense workouts like walking. During a lengthy, low intensity walk, you do use more fat than carbohydrate as fuel, but the overall total 'calories' are much lower than if you would have pushed yourself harder. More important, you will expend more food energy (including 'fat') for several hours after intense exercise – but none after light exercise, because not enough stress was generated to affect your metabolism (shake up those cells!). Incidentally, this post exercise effect is known as "after-burn" or EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption).
Therefore, it's important to consider how many total calories you expend throughout the day and not just while exercising. It's the overall food burning that utilizes more fat over time, so you are wiser to challenge yourself more (work harder) during your exercise sessions.
However, unless you are very fit, non-stop high intensity exercise will tire you far too quickly and you won't last long enough to utilize a significant amount of food energy. So it's smarter to do several short bursts of high intensity throughout your workout.
Even for those more fit, short, intense bursts of high intensity (called intervals) can provide similar cardiovascular and other fitness benefits as longer workouts of a steady pace of intensity. And even if you spend less time exercising – those short bursts of high intensity will still stimulate increased energy use (EPOC) long after you've stopped exercising.
But weight loss or fat loss isn't just about 'burning calories'
Other factors should be considered when exercising to utilize stored fat and lose weight. Like hormones, for example . . .
As we age, metabolism slows and hormone balance inevitably becomes more of a concern (for both sexes, by the way!). Therefore, utilizing fat during our long, easy walks becomes even less efficient. Particularly during and approaching menopause and andropause, we can use stored fat more effectively it we activate our fat-burning hormones (leptin, thyroid hormones, adrenaline or epinephrine, glucagon, DHEA, testosterone, and others). Exercise physiologists find the best way to activate these hormones is during exercise and particularly with frequent short bursts of intensity.
If you love your long, leisurely walks, by all means, keep doing them, especially for all its fitness benefits mentioned earlier. And yes, there are people who will lose weight while just walking – but they are usually those who are younger (not post menopause) who, naturally, have faster metabolisms.
However, many "experts" disagree and feel walking will result in weight or fat loss for everyone. But we must keep in mind we are all different. There are those who just can't lose fat or weight when regularly walking long distances – even with attention to diet. We are all individual in our health history and physical needs, especially as we age and our bodies change. In this informative video presented by Mark Faries PhD, he makes valid comments about the benefits of walking, but again, we need to consider our unique individuality.
It is also important to know we do not have to do difficult high intensity activities to lose weight or use fat. Rather, as mentioned earlier in this article, short bursts of intensity throughout a moderate workout can effectively utilize fat. It’s called High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Exercise physiologists suggest shorter workouts with very brief bursts of high intensity, can utilize just as much fat –particularly abdominal visceral fat – as a longer, moderate intensity activity (see HIIT sources below). These shorter workouts will certainly appeal to those who hate to exercise or those who simply have no time!
To boost your ability to utilize more fat while walking, you could choose to walk at a light intensity for much longer (if you have the time!) to increase the amount of stored fat you utilize at that time. But you lose out on the extra energy expenditure afterward from EPOC. And more important, you won't be stimulating your fat-burning hormones to help get to that stored body fat. Therefore, if your main goal is to lose excess body fat, simply 'up' the intensity for short periods during your long walks. Perhaps include several 20 to 30-second bursts up stairs/hills, or sprint, skip, or walk faster occasionally throughout your long walk. The intensity of these short 'bursts' need only be as hard as your fitness level allows: it shouldn't be painful or uncomfortable.
If the above suggestion doesn’t appeal to you, consider also (in addition to your regular walks) doing a shorter, more intense HIIT workout. Do it at least twice a week, perhaps on the days you don't walk. As mentioned earlier, the beauty of HIIT is it takes very little time. Yet you will still activate the fat burning hormones during your workout and continue utilizing the foods you eat (including fat) afterward, thanks to EPOC.
Another benefit of regularly doing HIIT or intervals: Research suggests HIIT will train your body to become less efficient at storing fat, and prefer to store mostly carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ instead – because carbs are what your body prefers as a fuel for short bursts of intensity. Therefore, if you keep doing HIIT workouts, your body knows to burn up the fat, but hang onto the carbs and store them, to prepare you for your next carb-eating workout. So even if you don't lift weights, your muscles (where carbs are 'stored') will look hard and pumped. It's why sprinters usually look more muscular than long-distance runners.
Here's a very basic example of an HIIT workout:
(Verify with your doctor or physiotherapist if you are extremely out of shape, ill, or recovering from injury.)
First, warm up for about two minutes with an easy-paced walk outdoors or on a treadmill (or ride an exercise bike).
After the brief warm-up, increase the intensity for 20 to 30 seconds: walk faster, skip, jog, or increase the tension to pedal harder on your bike. If you aren't fit yet and until you become fitter, don't kill yourself: just make this 20-30 second burst more of an effort for you.
Follow this short burst of intensity with a recovery period of one to two minutes (or more) of a very easy intensity. The length of this recovery period will depend on your fitness level and can be shortened over time as you become fitter.
Repeat the cycle of "20 to 30-seconds hard and one to two minutes easy" for up to four cycles in a 10 to 12-minute workout session (or about six cycles in a 15-minute session).
Be sure to stretch your lower body muscles afterwards.
This is a very brief HIIT description. And there are many other variations, some that can include your upper body muscles as well. Visit a certified fitness professional for more detailed information – or surf the net for more about Interval training or HIIT. (See the sources below, as well.)
And as a final note . . . your daily diet is a huge factor in how your body stores and uses fat. In addition, good nutrition provided by a sensible diet will help keep your hormones balanced to avoid weight gain especially as you age! Therefore, if all you want to do is those leisurely, long walks – and have no desire for HIIT workouts – at least choose to fuel your long walks with a healthful, balanced diet.
Eve Lees has been active in the Health & Fitness Industry for over 35 years. The former Personal Trainer is currently a Nutrition Coach, a Health Speaker, and a Health Writer for several publications.
Fat Burning Chart source: Debunking a Classic Myth: The Fat Burning Zone, by Nicholas Lapointe, University of Calgary Exercise Physiologist, in Personal Training on the Net Blog, Aug 25, 2016.
HIIT training boosts health/fitness in both young and older adults:
HIIT effective in altering body composition:
Promising metabolic effects of HIIT:
HIIT workout examples/benefits:
Treadmill HIIT workout example:
HIIT vs continuous endurance training: