How many times have you looked at yourself and received that sudden urge to work out? So you hit the treadmill or the elliptical and for 20–30 minutes you give it all you have, and you come out of it feeling sore, tired and over it. And then, more likely than not, you never go back to the same workout again, because rather than feeling pleasure at your accomplishment you associate the exercise with the pain it produces. What if someone told you that you could lose weight by exercising comfortably? Doesn’t sound real, does it? Well, you can: it’s called aerobic exercise.
Before exploring what aerobic exercise is all about, let’s start with the problem: if you want to lose weight, you probably want to lose fat. The first thing a lot of people will do is to cut as much fat as possible out of their diet. This is the wrong approach, though, because as soon as you drastically cut your fat intake your brain will think you’re starving yourself, and it will begin to save and store fat for future usage.
When most people go on a diet they look to cut out fats and that’s why most diets will fail. It’s why 95–97% of people who diet will regain any weight they lose over the following two to three years. That’s right! People who diet more often gain, not lose, weight over the long-run. What’s tragic about people who try to diet and fail is that they often end up blaming themselves, and they’re less likely to try again in the future, but the truth is that it wasn’t them who failed, it was their strategy. A crazy diet is not going to drive you toward the outcome you’re working so hard to achieve: sustainable weight loss and healthy living.
Now, none of this means that eating healthy doesn’t matter. Eating the right way is crucial to keeping your cells in peak state and to generating the energy that keeps you motivated, and it can help you fight inflammation and joint pain. Consuming the right nutrients, and keeping your body clean of toxins, is key to living healthy, but let’s focus on weight loss here. Dieting is not your solution to fat loss, aerobic exercise is.
We all have that friend who always talks about losing weight, and maybe that person built up the confidence and motivation to go the gym or get on the treadmill at home. Then, a week later, they don’t talk about exercise at all and they have no results to show for all the hard work they put in after they first got the urge to do something about their weight. What happened was that your friend decided to work out intensely, associating that pace and pain with weight loss. But, it’s painful and no one wants to do painful things, which is why your friend never went back to the gym. If you associate exercise with pain, you’ll never develop a successful and sustainable workout habit.
There’s another reason why you don’t want to just work out for 20–40 minutes for as hard as you can go: it’s not healthy and it can be counterproductive as far as losing fat goes. When you exercise too intensely what happens is that your lungs can no longer supply enough oxygen to your cells and muscles, and so your body will move away from breaking down fat to create energy — because it can no longer produce enough to satisfy the needs of your body — and instead you’ll start to break down glycogen. This is called anaerobic exercise, which literally means “without oxygen.”
What happens when you’re exercising anaerobically? For one, you’ll start to store fat since the body will move towards using glycogen to supply the necessary energy. Do it long enough and you’ll rewire your brain to automatically burn glycogen over fat. Second, when your store of glycogen is consumed your body will turn to your blood sugar. Two-thirds of your blood sugar is used by your nervous system to operate, so you can imagine the health problems that come with low blood sugar. Third, your muscles will undergo a large oxygen deficit and, as your body reroutes more of it towards your muscles, your organs will begin to suffer. When organs, and the cells they’re made of, weaken some mutate and some die, and overall your body will start to experience micro-breakdowns and, over time, can become quite serious.
Not exercising doesn’t work either, so the right program lies somewhere between exercising too lightly, or not taxing your lungs and your heart enough, and anaerobic exercise, or overtaxing your body. That balance is aerobic exercise.
Sounds good in theory, but how do you know what this balance is in practice? The easiest way is to measure your heart rate and to keep that rate between a certain range while you exercise. That range, where your heart rate should be while you work out, is between 65–85% of your maximum heart rate.
Okay, let’s break this down. What’s your maximum heart rate? A good rule of thumb is: 220 minus your age. If you’re 40, for example, your maximum heart rate is 180. Sixty-five and 85% of that are 117 and 153, respectively. So, in other words, if you’re jogging, or walking, or doing whatever exercise you prefer, your heart rate should be between 117 and 153. How the heck do you measure your heart rate, though? It’s not as if you’re going to keep your finger on your pulse while you run, right? Easy, before you fill your closet with new workout clothes, buy a heart rate monitor — it’s a little device that goes on your chest and is connected to a watch on your wrist. And with most of these devices you can program it to warn you when you’re leaving that range of aerobic exercise.
The best thing about aerobic exercise is that it’s surprisingly easy. In fact, you might find yourself wanting to push up the intensity, but don’t. The whole point is to commit to a longer, but easier, workout that helps train your biology for weight loss, rather than a short, intense workout that won’t burn fat and has a high probability of ending in injury. Aerobic exercise is key to a long-term, sustainable fat-burning program — one that focuses both on your weight and on your overall health.
If you’re performing aerobic exercise, the key is to work your body just the right amount. There’s no specific exercise that you need to religiously perform to accomplish this. Do what you like and find the most interesting. If you like playing tennis, then play tennis. If you love jogging, then jog. The point is to find something that speaks to what you like, and so when you go out and exercise you enjoy it.
If exercise is so painful that it’s not enjoyable to you, or if it’s so intense that it makes you uncomfortable, then you’re not going to be interested in sustaining it. What happens is that your brain starts to associate pain with exercise and instead of working out you’ll avoid it because it brings you the opposite of what you’re looking for.
In economics they use the term disutility to describe activities that we don’t like, but do anyways for some indirect purpose. Work is a clear example. Nobody liked working in an early 19th century factory, but they did it anyways to put bread on the table. But, even with work it’s not sustainable — you either quit or a conflict between employee and employer destabilizes the workplace —, which is why people tend to work with things they enjoy. Exercise should be similar in that you should work out in the ways that speak to you, otherwise you’re not going to enjoy it and you’re not going to do it.
What kind of physical activity are you going to enjoy for 40 or 60 minutes? Is it dancing? Tennis? Whatever it is, then do that as your exercise. There’s no right or wrong.
The only rules, or guidelines, are as follows:
Does losing weight matter to you? The better question is: Is weight loss a highly valued outcome to you? If achieving that healthy body that you want is an outcome that you really want, then the “I don’t have enough time” excuse is just that, an excuse.
Oftentimes, we use “I don’t have enough time” when in reality the problem is that we don’t enjoy the exercise. If that’s the case, opting for aerobic activities through exercises that you like won’t only solve the problem, but you’ll find that if you turn a should into a must and get into the rhythm of frequent aerobic exercising you’ll end up loving it, and after the first week it’s going to be something that you look forward to and that’s part of your life, your culture.
What if, liking exercise aside, you simply don’t have the time? Maybe 9 or 10pm isn’t an option because of the nightly news. Rig up your elliptical in front of a TV and work out then! Or maybe you take 15 minute breaks at work that you spend sitting in a break room or at your desk. Likewise, maybe you spend your 30 minute lunch at your desk. You could instead you use that time to walk around your office, or wherever you work from, and that’s an easy 30–60 minute window of time that you’re getting in some exercise.
Combining exercise with other pleasurable activities that you like to do is a great way of motivating yourself to putting in the time for aerobic activities. Some people love to read. They love reading so much that they’ll make a slot to get at least an hour’s worth of pages read every day. Does that take an hour away from exercise? No! You can read while you cycle or jog on a machine, and in fact that’s what a lot of people do. And suddenly in an hour’s worth of time you’re meeting two separate outcomes, rather than just one. You rock!
Your workout doesn’t need to be 30 or 60 minutes long if you absolutely do not have that kind of time. But ten minutes here and ten minutes there does make a difference, the difference being that between a little bit of exercise and no exercise at all. So if you ever find yourself doing something while sitting, something that you could just as easily do while moving, then get up and move around. Some of the healthiest, fittest people aren’t necessarily the same people who go to the gym for hours. They’re the people who move around while still accomplishing daily tasks, keeping their heart rate within the optimal range and training their metabolism to burn fat.
If you’re serious about weight loss and healthy living, if you’re serious about meeting your outcomes, you can learn more about fat burning, maintaining a healthy body and aerobic exercise in Tony’s The Body You Deserve.