There’s a lot I could say about fat burning, and there’s a legion of users-guide material throughout the internet world about methods to healthy fat burning (and many more about unhealthy fat burning ideas, which I will not bother to cover). I could write a piece about a dozen topics.
But I think it would help you to get some actionable tips in one place, and perhaps a shorter bit of writing on each of those in one place may help you more in the present. I can always cover all of these topics in additional pieces later.
So instead, I’m going to put a dozen topics into this long post, and succinctly get into why you should make it a standard or best practice.
If you’re trying to burn fat and struggling with it, these tips should help spur things along or keep things moving in the right direction.
Practice Intermittent Fasting
Even if the fat burning effects of intermittent fasting itself are debatable, there is a clear metabolic and calorie-restrictive benefit to restricting your easy to a small window of time each day. It’s much harder to overeat when you can only eat during a few hours of the day than if you have all day to eat whenever you like.
The easiest and most substainable way for most people to intermittent fast is to simply skip breakfast and make lunch your 1st meal of the day. This typically gives you about 8-10 hours before bed to eat all your calories for the day.
Many power through potential hunger cravings in the morning by drinking hot coffee or tea, and then water. They also keep themselves busy with work: It’s hard to think about food when you’ve got stuff to do. Over time, many just get used to not eating in the morning.
That said, there are some people who shouldn’t fast everyday: People who do their exercise in the mornings. I’ll get into navigating those situations shortly.
Start your day with some light outdoor activity
The first thing you do or ingest every day will set your body’s metabolic tone for the day. People gain weight over time in large part because they begin every day with inactivity and by consuming sugar-laden processed junk.
First, what you do physically will have a domino effect on how your body burns fat and activates hormones for the rest of the day. Get up earlier than usual if you need to, and get outside for a walk.
If you’re able and willing to take a jog or ride your bike, then by all means go for it. But a walk in itself is substantially better than nothing.
Leaving the house is good for getting relatively fresh air and positive Vitamin D exposure from the sun (provided it’s not overcast, of course). Even on cloudy or rainy days, a walk outside is beneficial for your circulation and hormones.
It will help even if you spend the rest of your day being lazy and eating stupid… which, hopefully, you won’t.
If you don’t get much sleep during a given night, make sure you intermittent fast that day
Ideally you’ll get to bed early and get 7-9 hours of sleep, but I realize as well as anyone that this doesn’t always happen. For reasons sometimes beyond our control, we sometimes don’t get good sleep during the night, and know we’ll have to battle through the next day with the after-effects.
This tiredness and sleep deprivation can produce a lot of fat-generating good-hormone-blunting cortisol, counter-productive to your fat loss goals.
One benefit of intermittent fasting is that your energy levels often drop after a meal, and not having a meal to start the day tends to keep your energy levels and alterness higher in the morning. So, if you sometimes intermittent fast, a morning like this is a good time to do so. You need an energy and alertness boost after short sleep, and intermittent fasting will help avoid any potential crash from breakfast.
But most of all, the potential fat-building damage of cortisol will be mitigated by your not eating breakfast that morning. By the time you finally have lunch, you should have a better hormonal profile flowing through your bloodstream than if you had started the day with breakfast. This should dampen the potential crash-effect of lunch.
Eat a light, protein rich lunch.
Remember I mentioned that crash that tends to happen after lunch? Many lunches are processed-carb rich, or rather big and filling. This requires a lot of bloodflow to your digestive tract and will sap your energy levels as your body works to process that food. That’s not what you need for the workday afternoon.
Plus, this process tends to promote cortisol generation and fat storage, compounded by the fact that you now have ingested a lot of calories that can be stored as fat.
The one trick to avoid the afternoon crash is to eat a lighter, satisfying but not overtly filling meal that is rich is protein and lighter on carbs.
You don’t want lunch to be too light, where you’re hungry again immediately afterward. You want to find the balance between satiety and keeping it light enough to not overwhelm your digestive tract and crash your energy.
For example, my energy would crash if I eat a burrito for lunch. But if I eat something too light like a can of tuna and a small piece of fruit, I’ll be hungry again in an hour, defeating the purpose of eating that lunch.
If I eat a pair of freshly prepared beef tacos… or a can of tuna, some carrots, and an apple… I may find a meal like that totally satisfying yet not so filling my energy drops. I actually feel pretty good after eating meals like that.
My good-hormones and energy don’t take a dive after meals like that. They help me continue to burn fat, rather than creating problems that reverse any prior fat burning.
If you train in the morning, intermittent fast on rest days. Eat breakfast or a morning snack if working out that morning.
Once you get used to intermittent fasting, you need not do it every day. In fact, if you like to train hard in the mornings (whether you run, strength train, or whatever else), it’s not a good idea to avoid eating something before or after these workouts.
Your body’s recovery will slow dramatically without some nutrition around those workouts, and you don’t want to go several hours between a hard workout and your first meal of the day (especially if that meal’s going to be light).
As for fat burning, heavy activity will lead to that food being burned and utilized more effectively. The carbs turn into glycogen rather than promote fat storage. Any fat in the food likely gets burned and/or after-burned from your body’s response to the exercise. And most of all, the protein will be used to help rebuild your tired muscles and other tissues.
A worn out body that isn’t re-nourished is more likely to compel you to not exercise, which is counterproductive to fat burning. Recovery food helps your body bounce back more quickly, and it will get that food burned rather than stored as fat. Plus, you metabolically set the tone for other food eaten throughout that day to get effectively utilized for recovery as well.
Intermittent fasting can still help you, and it’s best to practice it on days where you don’t plan to work out that morning. Going without breakfast won’t slow your body’s recovery, since you’ll have eaten several meals after your previous day’s workout. In fact, there’s various healing benefits to going without food for 16ish hours at a time that will in their own way spur recovery from your last workout (presuming you’re tired or sore and need it).
If you train in the PM, intermittent fast every day.
The flip side to intermittent fasting and hard training is that if you train towards the afternoon or evening, intermittent fasting is fine because your workout can take place right before or sometime after your first meal.
So in this case it would be no problem for you to intermittent fast every single day. The main key is you make sure your hard workouts and meals are within orbit of each other.
As mentioned, intermittent fasting can promote cellular healing during the actual fast. Being able to do it everyday can be more beneficial, provided no hard exercise takes place during the middle of any fast.
(If you want to train right before the end of a fast, it’s not damaging if you train within 1-2 hours of your first meal. BUT… don’t train at any point after you’ve began a 16+ hour fast. With no nutrition incoming to help heal muscular damage, that damage will just fester and the resulting inflammation will compound delays in healing. Just make sure you train when you know a meal’s coming after the workout.)
If trying to burn fat, strength train regularly (i.e. every other day, at least).
Fat accumulates in under-engaged parts of the body. The more of your body that physically trains, the fewer places on your body that fat can comfortably accumulate. Hate to say it, but if your butt is big and doughy it’s usually because you don’t consistently engage the muscles in and around your butt.
You don’t strength train necessarily to get buff. In fact, the only way to get buff is to overeat (bros call this practice “bulking”), which you obviously are not doing right now (so women, don’t worry about that whole “lifting will make me bulky” myth). Your muscles will grow some and your tone will improve, however, especially when muscle growth is compounded by the loss of any fat around those muscles.
But this isn’t about vanity (however welcome a side effect a better looking body may be). You strength train to improve your body’s capacity for moving around, as with improved muscular strength any movement involving those muscles becomes easier.
In improving your overall body movement, you’ll move more of your body more often, which will de-promote any fat building around those affected areas… along, obviously, with burning the fat over time around the affected muscles and parts of the body. You cannot spot reduce, but burning more fat across more of your body will over time improve the likelihood of burning unwanted fat in unwanted places.
Plus, as others have mentioned ad nauseum, a pound of muscle burns more calories per day than a pound of fat. But, as muscles get stronger and grow bit by bit, the better defined muscles will enhance how you look as you burn more fat. I know I said this isn’t primarily about vanity, but it’s a benefit.
Any strength training is better than no strength training, and there’s a wide variety of resources that can show you a wide variety of exercises. But going to a gym and using the strength training machines and dumbbells will often give you the most bang for your buck. Just keep the weight light to start and make sure you can safely repeat the needed range of motion. Get used to it and slowly add weight over time to make it as challenging as you can handle.
If doing multiple types of exercise in a day (cardio, strength training), try to do the strength training last.
Let’s say you’re way more than a beginner, and since you’re reading this you likely are a regular runner. You want to run and you want to strength train. You can totally do both in a day in many circumstances. However, the order in which you do them matters.
If you strength train and subsequently break down your muscle, your recovery will be inhibited by going for a run or other cardio later. In fact, the damage creates a higher risk of injury. Neither scenario will help your fat burning, let alone the rest of your life.
However, if you go for a run, the muscle damage before strength training isn’t as acute, and strength training afterward is safer than vice versa. Plus, the hormonal benefits that come from strength training (which are too vast to get into right now) help promote recovery and healing that will bolster your recovery from the run, in addition to your recovery from the strength training itself.
This is a big reason running coaches have runners follow the valuable habit of doing brief strength training right after a run workout. That’s actually the best time to do it. Sure, you can totally strength train hours after a run, though stiffness and soreness may have kicked in by then and could inhibit your strength training a bit. Doing it right after, you’re still relatively limber and warm.
And of course it’s a good idea to get something clean and protein/carb rich to eat soon thereafter. It boosts the recovery even further.
If you need to do strength training in the morning, avoid any other kind of exercise that day (especially aerobic exercise).
So maybe you can only exercise in the morning, and you want/need to strength train then. If you must do so, make sure you don’t do any other aerobic exercise later than day.
As I mentioned, you’re carrying the mild muscular damage from lifting throughout the remainder of the day with on rest. But you also undo the hormonal benefits from the strength training if you go and work out later. You create a ton of stress, inflammation, and cortisol, and so wipe out the positve hormones from the strength training that it’s like the positive aspects never happened and you’re only left with the soreness and other negatives.
Once you’ve boosted the testosterone (it’s not just for men: women have and need some of it for their own muscle healing) and other good hormones from a strength workout… you need to get to sleep before you can fully manifest their recovery benefits. If you go for any other kind of workout before then, you basically throw those in the trash before they can happen.
I know a lot of runners want to train in the evening. If you do, I would avoid strength training in the morning… unless you can take an extended nap during the day between workouts. If you want to do an aerobic workout in the morning before your evening aerobic workout, then okay. I’d porobably book-end the 2nd workout with some brief strength training before I’d fully strength train in the morning.
The first food you should eat on any day should be mostly unprocessed protein and fat.
I’ve mentioned this many times in the past and in this post, but you set the metabolic tone for the day from the first food you put in your mouth. Make sure that food is healthy, clean protein and fats.
While you don’t need to avoid carbs, I would eat them with or after any protein, and only if you are going to do or have just finished some intense or high volume aerobic exercise. Carbs that aren’t converted to glycogen for muscles likely either get stored as fat or otherwise promote fat storage throughout the body through spiking insulin levels.
I’m very careful about what my first meal of the day is. Eating cereal, a pastry or a donut to me is basically no better than pounding a beer or a shot of whiskey. I won’t even eat fruit.
In fact, I won’t even consume Gatorade or gels on a morning workout unless I had started the day with said protein/fat rich food.
What you eat to start the day has a domino effect on how your body feels, what hormones it produces, and how it metabolically responds to not just everything else you eat that day, but how it responds to physical activity. You can create a 2pm energy crash, or cause an otherwise healthy meal to add a bunch of extra fat… with a pastry eaten at 7am.
If you must eat any kind of processed garbage, try to do so right before exercise, or make time to exercise immediately after eating it.
Look, I like donuts (my friend Jeff on Twitter can tell you about that), and I like fried chicken. I subsisted off pizza for years. I still like these foods and don’t want to completely cut them out of my life. I’m willing to take the metabolic and inflammatory hit now and again to be able to enjoy them.
There is one situation where eating these does the least amount of damage. It’s before or after intense exercise.
As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum, exercise will lead you to burn calories and generate healing hormones your body otherwise would not. At least by eating that donut or slices of pizza immediately before or after that long or tough workout you minimize the damage of eating that food.
I’ve never had a problem with beer miles for that reason. That’s probably the metabolically best time to slam a beer! Ditto group meetups at a gastropub after a group workout.
Definitely do not make a habit of it. You are what you eat, and if your nightcapping all your workouts with a couple beers and pizza or fried food, your body will still punish you in the long run. I only point this out because it controls the damage, not eliminates it. Remember that the legendary Jim Fixx boasted about being able to eat McDonald’s because of his high volume running… until those eating habits killed him dead of a heart attack in his 50’s.
But indulging once a week or so after a hard workout with friends and colleagues isn’t so bad. Just make sure the body of work of your overall diet is sound.
Walk or run two miles a day.
This is straight up cribbed from Alexander Cortes, but it also lines up with general advice.
Lots of regular everyday walking is the easiest, most subtle way to quietly burn extra calories. Running can be challenging. If you can easily, repeatedly do it, then go for it. But at the very least try to get a couple miles of walking in every day.
Along with the metabolic and aerobic benefits of that much walking, you’ll burn at least a couple hundred extra calories every day without thinking. Plus, the benefits of outdoor air and extra Vitamin D have other cascading effects that in part can help burn more fat over time.
You’re better off being active than inactive.