The Fat-Burning Heart Rate Zone is a Myth! Here’s How Exercise and Weight Loss Work Together


Are you constantly checking your heart rate while you workout? Is it important for you to hit a specific heart rate to ensure that you’re in the fat-burning zone? It’s time to stop relying on a certain heart rate for fat loss! The idea that there’s a specific heart rate zone that will help you meet your weight loss goals simply isn’t true. You’ll never lose the weight you want to by sticking to a special heart rate zone.

Chances are, if you’ve ever worked with a personal trainer or spent any time at a gym looking at the charts on the wall, or the monitors on the equipment, you’ve heard a lot about the crucial fat-burning zone. The idea is to workout at 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. This level of exertion is relatively low; for most people they can carry on a full conversation at this rate. The common belief is that working out at this rate will lead to burning more fat and lead to stable, long-term weight loss.

There’s a bit of truth to these claims. The body is fueled by a mix of carbohydrates and stored fat. When you’re less active, the majority of that fuel comes from fat. When you amp up the activity levels, the amount of carbohydrates in that mix increases! When you’re at rest fat makes up 85 percent of the calories being burned. A brisk walking pace boosts the calorie percentage being burned by 70 percent. When you run at a moderate pace, the mixture becomes 50 percent fat and 50 percent carbohydrates! The faster you move, the more carbohydrates you’ll burn! Simply put,  it is true that you’ll burn more fat doing certain exercises at a specific energy level, however this isn’t the fundamental solution to weight loss.

Christopher Breen, an exercise physiologist and online coach in Long Island says, “The idea that all of a sudden when you hit this zone the fat is just being sucked out of your system is simplistic.” He continues, “That completely ignores that losing or maintaining weight is basically a matter of calories in versus calories out.”

If the secret to weight loss was how much fat you’re burning, it would be more beneficial to sit still. When you’re sedentary that’s when you’re burning the most fat in relation to carbohydrates. However, as Breen pointed out, calories is the most important component, which brings us to the next crucial factor when it comes to the myth of the fat-burning zone.

Christine Brooks, a University of Florida adjunct instructor and the coaching science coordinator for USA Track & Field explains, “If you’re exercising at this lower intensity, you’re burning fewer calories per minute…The average person walking for an hour is going to burn only a couple hundred calories.” In the same amount of time you could burn twice as many calories doing an activity like running, cycling or rowing at only a moderate level of intensity.


Typically, people plan their workouts around the amount of time they have. Very few people plan a workout based on how many calories they’ll burn. If you have 30 – 45 minutes to workout, chances are you won’t burn a lot of calories if you stay in the so-called fat-burning zone. Brooks says, “I’m all for people being more active, but most aren’t going to regularly put in the time at a lower intensity to create a calorie deficit.”

When you do the math, the fat-burning zone starts to look more and more inefficient for weight loss. A 1 hour, 2 mile walk burns about 200 calories with 140 of those calories coming from fat. Cycling for 1 hour will help you burn about 500 calories with 250 of those calories coming from fat. This means you’ll burn more calories and fat!  Breen says, “When I worked with people in a gym, I would tell them, ‘Ultimately, it’s a matter of calories; the fat-burn will take care of itself.”

Another reason to opt for more intense workouts? You’ll increase the afterburn effects! Brooks explains, “You maintain a higher metabolic rate after higher intensity exercise.” He continues, “The reason is that more damage is being done to various systems, so you have an increased heart rate while the body is making its necessary repairs.”

Breen and Brooks strongly believe that the myth of the fat-burning zone prevails because it’s an easy concept to grasp. Brooks states, “I have a real beef with the way this fat-burning idea is promoted… It’s a very strange way to talk about exercise”. Breen adds, “It’s a way of making exercise machines more appealing — if I’m working at this speed, I’ll burn more fat than at another speed.”

Low-intensity exercise does have a place and a purpose, however. A light jog, a walk, a light spin class, or even walking the dog can help you clear your head, reenergize, and burn calories! Breen suggests, “Mix it up…Have some harder, high-intensity days, followed by easier, low-intensity recovery days.” It may also be beneficial to mix up the duration of your workouts. Choose workouts that you can do for a longer period of time, at a lighter effort. On days when you’re short on time, workout at a more intense level!

Not only will switching up your workouts prevent you from burning out, it will also help you feel physically and mentally excited by giving you fun, refreshing workouts to look forward to. Switching up your workouts will help you to remain consistent, which will help you see long term results! When it comes to long-lasting weight loss results, the only zone you need to worry about is the zone that will keep you in a consistent workout groove!

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