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Don’t Let the “Fat Burning Zone” Deceive You

I just received a facebook message question about their “target heart rate”. I believe this is one of the most deceiving fitness principles so I’m going to attempt to explain exactly what the “target heart rate” is and the truth (more like a lie) behind the “fat burning zone”.

Learning Your Maximum Heart Rate

You may have heard the term, Maximum Heart Rate, but most people have no clue what that is. We see stickers on treadmills saying “65% of your maximum heat rate”, but that’s basically a foreign language to most people. Here’s the answer: your maximum heart rate is always 220 minus your age.

Your Maximum Heart Rate is:
220 – my age (_____) =  ___________
My maximum heart rate is 178

The Fat-Burning Zone

walking on a treadmill

The so-called magical “Fat Burning Zone” is 65-75% of your maximum heart rate. This is the zone where your body burns a higher percentage of calories from fat. This is where I start getting mad and here’s why. Stay with me. We need to work through this math so you can follow me here. Trust me – it will be worth it!  

Before I can show you why the Fat Burning Zone is not what it’s all cracked up to be, we have to do some simple math so we can compare numbers. Follow along with me. I did the math for me, and put the equations up so you could learn what your personal numbers are as well.

The low end of My Fat Burning Zone is:
Your maximum heart rate of _________X .65 = ____________
My low end of the fat burning zone should average 115.7

The high end of My Fat Burning Zone is:
Your maximum heart rate of _________X .75 = ___________
My high end of the fat burning zone should average133.5

The Cardio Zone

running on a treadmillIf you want to work your heart and lungs, then you would want to exercise at 75-85% of your maximum heart rate. In this zone, you burn more calories, but a lower percentage of calories from fat.

The low end of my Cardio Zone is:
Your maximum heart rate of ____________X .75 = _____________
My low end of the  cardio zone should average 133.5

The high end of my Cardio Zone is:
Your maximum heart rate of ____________X .85 = _____________
My high end of the cardio zone should average 151.3

Calories Burned: High vs Low Intensity Cardio

The body DOES burn a higher percentage of calories from fat in the “fat burning zone”  (percentage, being the key word here). BUT, at higher intensities, you burn a greater number of overall calories which is what you should be concerned about when trying to lose weight – AND, believe it or not, you also burn MORE FAT too!

Look at the chart very closely. Prepare to be amazed!

calories burned

You see, you burned MORE calories and MORE fat working at a HIGH intensity. BAM! Case closed!

NOTE: ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) suggests a workout should expend 300 calories in order to be considered a “fat loss” workout. So the low-intensity workout loses in every department! Now, don’t get me wrong, if working at a low-intensity is pushing you, then keep pushing! ;)

MY RANT!

I wish companies would take the Fat Burning Zone labels OFF the treadmills and cardio equipment because it SO misleading. I’m sure they thought it was a great marketing ploy to convince America they could get MORE results with LESS work. The sad part is America believes them and MANY people are actually not pushing themselves as far as they should in order to stay “in the zone”. Let’s just go ahead and say encourage mediocracy people! NOT!

If you want to burn the MOST fat AND the MOST calories, I suggest interval training. It has been actually proven to burn more fat and it’s more fun too. Basically the idea is to peak in the cardio zone and rest in the fat burning zone so to speak. Like sprinting for a couple minutes and power walking or jogging for a couple minutes. This is also why we put intense exercises, like burpees, in our BCx Boot Camp workouts, followed by something that is not as intense. It gets your heart rate up during the intense section and then gives you time to recover in the more moderate sections, which burns more fat while burning as many calories as you can.

NOTE: If you REALLY want to track your calories burned during workout, I recommend getting a heart rate monitor. The Polar brand is recommended (we have the Polar RC3) . They aren’t cheap but SO worth the investment. PLUS, when you know you just killed 600 calories in a class, seeing that figure in black and white makes you less likely to eat 700 calories of junk and throw all that hard work away. It’s also a rude awakening when you feel like you burned a million calories and you only burned 300 calories. It’s a great tool to enhance your training.

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26 comments

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  1. kelley

    I have a concern. If my HR is supposed to stay in between 141-159, I am 32. I am a runner and when I train I use a HR monitor and my HR stays between 165-180. Is that too high? Am I training to hard? I feel great when I run, so I am just wondering if that’s a concern.

    1. Bonnie Pfiester

      I’m so sorry I missed this!! That is high. Do you have a fast heartbeat or anything like that? It wouldn’t hurt to check on it. Your maximum heart rate is 188, so you are close to max at the top end and close to just under 90% on the low end. The heart rate is only an indication of effort ( guideline) but it’s not always accurate depending on your heart. Some people’s heart rate has a hard time getting up, and some people’s beats too fast – both at the same intensity level. I’d see a doctor though just in case :)

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    So if I want to lose more weight I have to work harder. That takes work. I know I can, I know I can.

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  6. Joe @ fatloss123

    Bonnie, great article. It explains fat burning very well in a way most people can understand. I think it is a given that people starting out need to gauge their own fitness levels and go at a slower pace. But I love HIIT! I highly recommend it. I’ve never found anything quite as effective that you can do in such a short amount of time without the need of much equipment. I’ve never gained huge muscles while doing HIIT but never lost muscle either. Combining strength training (I use dumbells, kettlebells, body-weight) and cardio at a rapid pace saves me money, time and gives me the lean, muscular look. I think most people want that instead of the steroid-Arnold look. Obviously diet is important so no amount of exercising will save you if you don’t eat well.

    1. Bonnie Pfiester

      thanks! and I agree! :)

  7. Sammy @ Peace Love and Ice Cream

    I should print this!! Thanks Bonnie :)

  8. Dan

    I love your blog, but I am going to have to disagree with you slightly here. When someone starts a workout program they need to start at a lower heart rate so as to build up their aerobic base. If they do not do do this the workouts become very arduous and not enjoyable because they are purely anaerobic. If they build up their aerobic base the intensity they are running at become much higher, and their heart rate stays down leading to more fat burning and the exercise program being sustained for years and not weeks or even days.

  9. Tim Walker (@pastortimwalker)

    Tremendous insight. Thank you!

  10. Brian

    For individuals soling looking to lose weight(mass) then doing higher intensity training is a good thing.

    However for individuals that wish to tone or remove that stubborn belly fat, low intensity cardio is better.

    Working at higher levels will use muscle mass for energy as well as fat. So working at higher levels will burn more fat overall but will also burn muscle. Whereas working at lower intensity will burn not as much fat but will not burn off any muscle mass. These are the reasons higher intensity normally(Cardio Zone) lasts 20-30 minutes and lower intensity(Fat-burning Zone) lasts 45-60 minutes. This distinction needs to be make in your article, because many people do not want to lose the muscle they have already gained.

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  12. Gabor

    Bonnie,

    I’m sorry but I think you do not really understand the essence of fat burning. Fat burning means exactly what its words say: “fat burning”. Not carbohydrate/muscle burning. Hence, a lower workout intensity is better when you want to burn fat but do not want to lose muscle. Burning muscle is not the aim of anyone. “Case closed” sounds very strong-minded, but you are still not really familiar with the topic.

  13. Dr. JMiller, DC, RPh (Chiropractic Physician & Hospital Clinical Pharmacist)

    A very well explained difference between ‘low intensity’ and ‘high intensity’ work-out fat burners. I appreciate your passion in setting the media straight, and clarifying the facts for the consumer. Keep up the good work of keeping the consumer ‘in the know.’ When you have articles with ‘metrics’ attached, it gives ‘targets’ for your clients.

    “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” ~Author Unknown

    (I focus on lifestyle/wellness consulting, sports medicine, rehabilitation, and holistic/alternative healthcare)

    1. Bonnie Talley Pfiester

      love that quote – I say a similar quote often. “A person may aim high but hit low, but he never hits high if he aims low” My grandmother passed it down to me. So true!

      Thanks for commenting. I always appreciate the feedback. If you haven’t subscribed, I’d love to have you!! :)

  14. Michael

    1 hour on elliptical with my HR at 147 burning 845 calories vs. 1 hour and 6 minutes with HR at 138 and burning 920 calories. Which makes more sense? This is the last two workouts I did. Lower intensity yet a few more minutes can yield better results. Shorter workouts perhaps, but one hour workouts, do a few extra minutes (I jam last 5 or 6 mins), and you will achieve better results.

  15. John Jefferson

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    1. Bonnie Pfiester

      Thank you!! :) I appreciate your comment and compliment too!!

  16. sarah

    Oh my gracious! I had no idea how this worked. I use a heart rate monitor (Garmin) when I run, but I had no idea what any of the numbers meant. I only knew that when my heart rate got into the 160s I wouldn’t last long! Thanks so much for explaining this.

    1. Bonnie Pfiester

      I’m so glad it helped!! Yay!!

  17. Christopher Borders

    Why couldn’t my math teacher have explained things as well as you do Bonnie? Great article, I’m going to share!

    1. Bonnie Pfiester

      Thank you! You are so sweet. Honestly, I think the harder it was for me to learn, the easier it is for me to teach it to someone else where THEY understand it. :)

  18. Barry Murphy

    Well said!! I’m a true believer that interval training is the way forward and tell my clients all the time.

    Barry
    Excel Fitness,
    Dublin,
    Ireland

  19. Bonnie Pfiester

    thanks!!!!! :)

  20. PTrainerShonda

    Good article. I tell my clients the same thing and actually taught all my bootcampers this this morning.

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