Straight, No Chaser: Fat Burn vs. Cardio – How Do I Best Exercise?

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You’re working out. Congratulations! But do you know what you’re doing?

If you’ve ever been to a gym, perhaps on an elliptical, a treadmill or stationary bike, perhaps you’ve seen a table like this. (You may want to click the pictures and tables to enlarge them.)


Your target heart rate zone points to a range of health and fitness benefits based on how much energy you exert during your workout. With that in mind, let’s discuss two of the settings you’re likely to see on your exercise equipment: fat burn and cardio.


It’s best to view your workouts as achieving incremental benefits. Any physical activity burns calories. Calories are units of energy, and you burn energy to lose weight. If you burn enough calories (relatively to how many you take in), you will lose weight. (We’ve discussed that previously here.)
Now your body has different ways of storing energy. Depending on how intensely you exercise, you will preferentially attack different energy stores. The important point is that different levels of activity and exercise progressively take you from burning calories to burning fat to improving your heart’s conditioning.

  • Fat burn: A lot of the confusion among those starting to exercise is found in the seemingly intuitive notion that people exercise because they want to “lose fat” rather than also thinking about “burning carbs” or “conditioning the heart.” In the hierarchy of expending energy, the body actually burns a higher percentage of fat relative to carbohydrates at lower levels of exertion. Lighter workouts afford the body a greater level of oxygen, which is needed to burn fat most efficiently. This level of exercise corresponds to reaching approximately 65% of your average maximum heart rate.
  • Cardio: When your exercise level reaches approximately 80-85% of your maximum heart rate, you’re in cardio mode, which means you’re working at a level sufficient to strengthen your heart and cardiovascular system. This level of exercise also best improves your blood pressure and lowers your cholesterol levels. In the grand scheme of things, cardiovascular fitness is much more important than fat burning. It’s important to note that at the higher levels of exercise, you don’t lose any of the benefits obtained at the lower levels of exercise.


So let’s clear any confusion regarding fat burning, weight loss and exercise. When you exercise in cardio mode, you exhaust your oxygen stores to the point where you aren’t as efficient in burning fat, although you are still doing so. In cardio mode, you switch to preferentially burning carbohydrates, which doesn’t require the same oxygen levels as fat to be utilized for energy. This point is illustrated in the following table.
If weight loss is your goal, you will absolutely burn more calories (and more fat) in cardio mode than fat burning mode. Fat burning mode points to the intensity level needed to start the fat burning process. For the most comprehensive workout, incrementally increase your workouts until you can perform in the cardio mode, because what you care about is the total number of calories, not the percentage of fat burned. And yes, you’ll still look better burning more calories than focuses on burning a higher percentage of fat relative to carbs.
Finally, as a measure of health, know your target resting heart rate. Where you fall in that range is a decent measure of your level of fitness.


Don’t forget to consult your physician before you begin an exercise routine.
Feel free to ask your SMA expert consultant any questions you may have on this topic.
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