Exercise Won’t Give You a 6-Pack

Weight loss (fat loss) is the #1 reason people seek out a personal trainer. (Note: there is a difference between weight loss and fat loss, and most people want the fat loss, so we will continue with that phrase). And we will also note that everyone has a 6-pack, it’s just a matter of if we can see them or not.

If your goal is fat loss, a good personal trainer will stress that fat loss starts in the kitchen, and exercise should supplement your fat loss goals. We stay in our lanes. We are not registered dietitians, and while we can give general advice on how to improve your nutrition (drink more water, eat less processed foods, cut back on sugar, eat more whole foods, fruits and veggies), we are not experts in what exactly you need to create the safest and most effective environment in your body for fat loss.

(Side Note: In my opinion, if a trainer pushes you to try the latest and greatest diet trend out there – Keto, Paleo, etc. – or pushes you to buy some type of shake they sell – RUN for the hills. Personal trainers should be teaching you exercise, fitness and physical activity – not selling you diets and shakes.)

So with nutrition being the single most important variable in fat loss, why is there such a focus on exercise? People are misinformed thanks to the internet, and continually think that they can out-train bad nutrition. You can’t. Exercise isn’t going to burn off the bad food or excess calories you ate. In fact, the whole “burn up to 600 calories” per workout (and for 72 hours after!) is bunk. It’s misleading and has been proven by science to be inaccurate for years…decades, in fact.

This is why you see so many personal trainers peddling nutrition, because they KNOW that it’s crucial in their clients’ journey to getting results (fat loss). You often see “fat burning workouts” or the best “fat burning exercises” all over the internet. Well, sorry…but it’s all BUNK.

Do you burn calories when you workout? YES. But not as much as you think, and not enough to be your one and only fat loss strategy. The quantity of calories you actually burn in a workout session is lower than you’ve been led to believe, and the extra calories you burn from exercise only account for a small part of your total energy expenditure during the day – somewhere in the range of 10-30 percent. The remaining 70-90 percent comes from your resting metabolic rate, the energy used to carry out the host of physiological processes that are constantly occurring in the body. (Be wary of activity trackers, as they tend to overestimate the caloric burn from these processes.)

Do you continue to burn calories for many hours or even days after your workout? NO. Depending on the specific type of training you are doing, your metabolism stays elevated post-workout for about the length of time you trained, but not much beyond that. And certainly not for days! And at this point, I am sure HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) has come to mind, which is one of the most popular fitness trends being marketed as purely a fat burning workout, especially in the Edmonton fitness scene. The science has been out that true HIIT can definitely improve V02 max, and improve blood sugars. However, the energy expenditure is just not enough because of the duration of the session. True HIIT sessions (and that is where you are literally working at your MAX heart rate for the work periods) are only meant to be done for anywhere from 10-20 minutes. While many studies show that HIIT can help with fat loss (negligible) than other forms of exercise, the biggest factor in that was, of course, nutrition and appetite suppression (nutrition!).

I would add (as a shameless plug) SVPT Fitness + Athletics has NEVER ever marketed or sold so-called fat burning workouts, fat burning exercises, weight loss shakes, or any kind of supplements. We have never made false claims about training to entice clients into our gym. And we have been successfully in business for 10 years.

We take pride in refusing to spread inaccurate information. We don’t even believe in putting an emphasis on exercise for burning calories. We put the emphasis on quality movement that will benefit your health and your life. We know that if you want to lose fat or have long term weight loss goals, it is all about the food! This is why we partnered with dietitians to help our clients navigate those waters. It’s the best way for them to learn the most effective ways to lose fat and keep it off over the long term.

BUT WAIT…does this mean you don’t have to exercise to lose fat? NO. You still need to exercise so you can do ALL the things you want to in life. So you can be independent. So you can prevent injury. So you can golf into your 70s, or hike into your 60s. So you CAN LIVE A FULL LIFE. Exercise shouldn’t be a punishment to burn off something you ate, or earn something you want to eat. Exercise should be your tool to live life to the full. Exercise GIVES life. Exercise improves health. And when you improve health, you improve quality of life.

Here is why you still need to exercise, regardless of your goals:

  • Joint health
  • Muscle strength, growth and maintenance\
  • Improve blood pressure
  • Improve blood sugars
  • Improve mood
  • Decrease stress, anxiety, fatigue
  • Improve attention
  • Improve sleep
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Prevent disease and illness
  • Resilience
  • Independence
  • Longevity
  • Vitality
  • Resilience

….the list is extensive and can go on even further. Essentially, we just move less than we did 50 years ago.

Exercise is excellent for health and wellness; it’s just not that important for fat loss. So don’t expect to lose a lot of fat by ramping up physical activity alone. If your workouts are soul crushing every day in an effort to “burn more calories” or “burn fat” to get to your fat loss goals, you are actually doing yourself a disservice. Not just that day or that week, but long term. The hormonal ramifications of soul crushing workouts every day are huge, not to mention that you are also risking burnout and injury.

With all of that said, it’s still awesome to challenge yourself with a really tough workout every once in a while. It simply has to be programmed properly – both to occur at the right time, and to include movements that won’t get you hurt. This is where seeking the advice of a fitness professional can help you.

If weight/fat loss is your goal, please seek the help of a registered dietitian to learn about food, proper eating habits, and your caloric range to help you get to your fat loss goals safely and effectively. At the same time, realize the genuinely incredible health benefits of exercise. While exercise is still an important part of the fat loss puzzle, remember that it shouldn’t be the ONLY piece.

Shara Vigeant, BA, NSCA-CPT*D, CFSC