The fitness industry lives on buzz words. The next big thing in fitness in guaranteed to get you slim, all you have to do is pay the fee! If it seems too good to be true, let’s talk about it. While completing my doctorate I actually worked as a personal trainer certified under the American College of Sports Medicine, so let’s discuss two big buzzes going around, the fads that don’t necessarily work as advertised, and give you some tips on what might actually work for you!
One of the biggest buzz words right now is “functional strength.” Physios, CrossFit Athletes, College Athletic programs, and now many local gyms are jumping in on this. So is it really better than base strength training? Well that depends on your goals. It is absolutely true that we have found that once base strength is present, athletes who transition to lifts that closer mimic their sport seem to experience better carry over of that strength into their sport. We also see this with demanding jobs, and even daily activities. This is what the word “functional” in functional training is supposed to mean: we take our base strength and practice it in a manner more similar to how we intend to use it to get the best carry over. So does flipping a tire mean functional strength? Maybe, if your daily activities involve repetitive explosive lifting. But if they do not, it’s the same as any other lift: good at building strength. So if your goal is just to build strength and muscle, any lift you enjoy will do. If you have specific goals related to an activity, make sure your coach is making you do things that actually mimic that physical skill. This is a buzz word with merit, but when you see it used, use your scrutiny.
How about the “Fat Burning Zone?!” Ah yes, the magical heart rate at which your body starts burning fat instead of sugar or muscle. This is a concept with roots in some hard science, but one that has been rather misinterpreted by trainers around the globe. Our body will almost always try and use the simplest sugars first, not fat or protein, for pure efficiency regardless of heart rate. Even in that perfect zone, if I have other easier to break down energy sources in my system my body will always use them and not fat. Now, once those are used up, there are certain heart rate zones that do seem to utilize more fat than protein and vice versa, but the difference is not nearly as drastic as advertised. The best way to keep your body from using muscle instead of fat is to incorporate resistance training exercises like weights, machines, or body weight exercise so that the body knows that it needs to keep as much of that material as possible to maintain strength. From there, a lot of weight loss is math. Your body has to get energy from somewhere. If it cannot use sugar because it’s all used up, and muscle is prioritized for protein uptake, your metabolism has to go for the fat! A rounded program, not a magic heart rate zone, is a much more accurate key to improving our body composition.
Alright, but what if you just heard about this cool new gym and their cutting edge workout? Is it worth checking out?
The answer is a big maybe. A large part of exercise is that we are moving in ways that expend far more energy than we do at rest, forcing our body to try and break down what stores it has to get rid of them (those stores being fat!). It is 100% true that the less efficient or more intense a movement, the more energy your burn doing it. So burning more over a short period of time must be better, right? Sure! If you’re going to stick with it. Jump roping and lap swimming are some very inefficient movements, which means they expend a lot more energy over a shorter time than some things like jogging or walking. But, these high intensity activities can also be so exhausting that you cannot keep up the intensity long enough to get the benefit you need. 10 minutes of jumping rope is estimated to be the equivalent of a 30 minute jog or an hour walk in caloric expenditure, but I have had plenty of clients who cannot complete even 2 minutes of jump roping, but could walk for 2 hours. So at the end of the day, which was benefitting them more? This is not to say that high intensity workouts are not great at what they do, it is my preferred method myself! Jump rope, high intensity sprints, and kickboxing are taxing, exhausting, and something I worked into so that I can spend all of that energy quickly! But when I started exercising, I worked up to these things slowly, and if I hadn’t I probably would have quit altogether.
And what about the ancient, tried and true workouts like Yoga and Tai Chi? Well, they definitely work! And having active meditation can be a great stress reliever to boot! But to argue that they work any better than other forms of exercise would be untrue. Both work hard at flexibility, balance, and strength, important components of any rounded exercise program. Some rare forms of both can even include cardiovascular elements that force hard breathing and increased heart rate! But not all, and this is another highly important part of a rounded program, and ignoring our heart and lungs is a dangerous plan when it comes to maintaining our health.
So what should we do? Well, you’ve heard it a lot already: a rounded program! Our heart needs at least 3 to 6 days week of cardiovascular stress that forces our heart rate and breathing up to a moderate or vigorous intensity (moderate being similar to a jog, vs vigorous being an all out sprint) for 30-60 minutes a day. We should also be doing some sort of resistance training (functional or otherwise!) to force our body to keep up strength during our efforts at least 3 to 6 days a week in a way that targets all of our major muscle groups of the upper and lower body. We should be doing DAILY flexibility and balance routines to keep limber and mobile, especially in our world of sedentary jobs. And most importantly, this routine has to be something we WANT to do. This is a real advantage of things like Zumba, Yoga, and kickboxing: sometimes it feels more like fun than exercise. It’s the best advice I can give anyone regarding weight loss: find a program you don’t dread doing, and you’ll meet your goals. It is perfectly okay to do a lower intensity exercise like a natural walk if you actually enjoy doing it, you just need to do your research or talk to a healthcare professional about how much you need to be doing to meet the recommendations for health. It is okay to exceed or go below that magic fat burning zone if you are more likely to stick with it, and if your trainer understands how to modify your routine to work within your goals.
We like to complicate health, and those magic promises sometimes sell, but in reality our work is very straightforward: find something you enjoy, do it at and intensity and time that will help you to your goals, and add in elements to round it out to make sure you are not missing anything. And if you don’t know where to begin, people like myself are always happy to help!