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Is the Fat-Burning Zone a Real Thing?

If you want to lose weight, forget the fat-burning zone and try these strategies instead

spinner image woman at the gym working out with battle ropes in the fat burning zone to torch more calories and unhealthy fat
FG Trade / Getty Images

If you’ve ever used the cardio equipment at a gym, you may have noticed a colorful heart rate zone chart that shows a magical “fat-burning zone.” The chart indicates that lower intensity, steady-state cardio is the best way to burn fat.

But experts say the fat-burning zone is misleading, and it sends the wrong message to those who want to lose weight.

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“It’s nonsense,” says David C. Nieman, director of Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Laboratory in North Carolina. “The chart is really off base because it doesn’t consider total calorie burn or what happens after you exercise.”

In reality, Nieman and other experts say, the best way to burn off fat is to work out at higher intensities — pushing your heart rate to around 70 percent or more of its maximum ­— while altering your diet to take in fewer calories.

The link between metabolism and fat loss

The idea of the fat-burning zone came out of what we know about human metabolism, says M. Brennan Harris, chair of the Department of Kinesiology at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

In short, when you exercise vigorously and your body needs energy quickly, it tends to get its fuel from carbohydrates, not fats, because they are easier for your body to break down. By contrast, when you are less active, your body gets more of its energy from fats.

Based on that knowledge, the original proponents of the fat-burning zone recommended keeping your exercise at a moderate intensity — typically about 60 percent of your maximum heart rate — in order to burn a higher percentage of fat compared to carbs.

The problem, experts say, is that the percentage of fat compared to carbs that your body is using is not what determines weight loss. Otherwise, we could lose weight from just sitting or sleeping all day, since that’s when our bodies get the highest proportion of their fuel from fat.

Instead, what matters most if you want to drop pounds is how much total energy you burn in calories.

“If you want to lose weight, you have to burn more than you’re taking in,” Nieman says.

3 better ways to burn fat

Instead of aiming for the “fat-burning zone,” try these research-based tips to maximize your fat burning during physical activity:

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1. Elevate your heart rate.

The more vigorous the activity, the more fat you will burn in a short amount of time. In addition, Nieman’s research shows that your body will continue to burn more calories than normal for hours after a high-intensity workout.

Ideally, you want your heart rate to be at least 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, Nieman says. Since it can be hard for average people to monitor their heart rates, Nieman suggests paying attention to your perceived exertion. “It should feel difficult, like you can’t carry on extended conversation,” he says. (The American Heart Association recommends 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate for your age for an intense workout and 50 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate for a moderate workout).

2. Try high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Research shows that brief periods of intense exercise alternating with periods of rest — called high-intensity interval training — can help incinerate fat. Several different meta-analyses published over the past decade have found that interval training helps you burn significantly more fat than exercising at a continuous, steady pace.

You could alternate between walking for three minutes at your regular pace and then speed walking for one minute, say, or try similar intervals on a bike or rowing machine or while swimming. Check out the video at the bottom of this article to see a beginner HIIT workout.

3. Incorporate strength training.

You know that strength training can build muscle, but a growing body of research shows it can reduce fat, too. One review of 58 studies published in the journal Sports Medicine found that resistance training for at least four weeks decreased body fat by an average of 1.46 percent. And University of Kentucky researchers in a 2021 study found that resistance training causes changes at the molecular level that stimulate fat burning.

The government’s physical activity guidelines recommend strength training twice a week. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean lifting heavy weights; using your own body weight or a resistance band can be just as effective.

Of course, any exercise is better than no exercise, so if you can’t do vigorous exercise or HIIT, don’t despair. Walking, light weight training, swimming pool workouts and even simple squats are also terrific for your health. Numerous studies show that it’s better to be moving more than moving less. If you do want to try exercising at a higher heart rate, start with easy or moderate exercise and work your way up. And anytime you are considering starting or trying a new workout, you should check in with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you.

10-Minute Beginner HIIT Workout