Want to Reduce Body Fat? Try Resistance Training!
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, J.D., Founder
I’ve written before about the importance of body composition and specifically about the health risks of having too much body fat. Conventional wisdom is that doing aerobic exercise, such as jogging or hitting the elliptical at the gym, are the best ways to burn off that excess fat and keep it off. However, credible research continues to show that while aerobic exercise may indeed burn off more calories per workout, the real secret to reducing your body fat over the long term is resistance training.
And you don’t need to spend much time to reap these benefits either. There is evidence that even occasional resistance training makes you less likely to become obese in the first place. And regularly doing workouts aimed at muscle strengthening makes you between 20 and 30 percent less likely to become obese over time.
As you can imagine, given that about 40 percent of us could be categorized as obese, taking steps to prevent obesity is far easier than trying to lose all that unhealthy excess weight later.
Resistance exercise is not limited to doing endless dumbbell curls or herculean squats. It really is anything that challenges your muscles to do more than they are accustomed to doing during your daily routine. So besides “pumping iron,” it also includes working with resistance bands or chords (which became very popular during the pandemic); body weight exercises such as with TRX straps (which are very easy on your joints); and even isometric exercises including many yoga poses. Planking is also a great form of resistance training that you can practically do anywhere.
Also, for women who are worried about looking like the hulk after resistance training, don’t worry. While we may get toned, which is a great thing, we are not going to bulk up. This is simply because we don’t have the levels of testosterone in our systems that promote that degree of muscle growth.
There are several reasons for why resistance training is important for reducing body fat. One of the more recent, and more intriguing, findings is that this type of exercise may help shrink fat by literally sending a message to fat cells that can jump start the fat burning process. And this instruction to burn fat continues well beyond the actual time we spend working out. In fact, it may continue for 24 hours or more!
So, while you will burn fewer calories during the workout itself compared to aerobic or cardio exercise, by boosting your metabolism you will burn fat (and calories) for hours afterward. Keep in mind we are not talking hundreds of extra burned calories here – so you shouldn’t take a resistance workout as your cue to have a blueberry muffin – focus on the fact that the cumulative effect can be significant. For example, even if your body burns only 75 calories more a day because of this “afterburn,” you are talking about an extra 2,250 burned calories a month without any extra effort on your part (other than eating healthily, of course).
Another reason that resistance training can help reduce or help you better manage body fat levels is the inherent difference between muscle and fat. For its part, muscle burns more calories (in medical terms it is more metabolically active than fat) so adding muscle to your frame tends to increase how many calories you burn just doing your daily tasks. And the bonus here is that while it takes a while to tone and build muscle, some of the benefits of weight training on reducing fat start to happen immediately after your workout. Weight training also can help us retain the muscle we have when we are trying to lose weight as well as maintain muscle mass in general, which is especially important as we age.
If you are older, you may be thinking to yourself “why bother trying to reduce my body fat now, my metabolism is slower than when I was younger, so I would just be trying to outmaneuver nature”? If you think this way, you probably are following the conventional wisdom that our metabolism – which impacts the number of calories we burn through living our daily lives – starts to slow in our teens and continues this downward spiral for the rest of our lives. This slowdown then results in the dreaded weight creep as we get older. If you add in the assumed metabolic slowing effects of menopause for women, trying to control weight or reduce body as we get older can start to look like a Sisyphean task.
But a recent study may have more good news here as well. Based on data from some 6,500 people with ages ranging from eight days to 95 years, researchers found that men and women basically have the same metabolic rate. They also determined that we have four different metabolic phases in life rather than experiencing a continuous lifelong downward slope in metabolic rate. The first year of life, as expected, is when our metabolisms are at their highest; this is followed by a slight decrease of around 3 percent a year from age 1 until we turn 20; from 20 to 60, our metabolic rates hold steady; and after age 60, they have a minimal decline of about 0.7 percent a year.
There are, of course, variations from person to person, but in general this is good news for those trying to better control their weight and/or reduce body fat. But this means that we can no longer blame our annual weight gain on metabolism since it more likely is linked to our diet and exercise habits! It also means we have no excuse, other than health limitations, for not adding resistance training to exercise routines or continuing with them if we already do.
As you plan your resistance training, keep in mind that there are three important elements to making it as effective as possible. First, you want to make sure you are using enough resistance to make each exercise challenging without being daunting. Second, you need to do enough of each exercise to maximize its value – in my case, I like doing three sets of 10 repetitions per exercise, which means I am doing each exercise 30 times before I move on to another. The third is making sure you keep the exercises challenging by adding resistance or repetitions or both each time you work out. Aim to work out each muscle group (chest, arms, legs, calves, back, shoulders) two or three times a week.
Remember That Healthy Eating is Half the Equation
The easiest and quickest way to undo all the fat-fighting benefits of resistance training – or any other exercise for that matter – is to disregard the importance of following a primarily plant-based diet and to cook as many of your meals at home as possible. This will allow you to know exactly what you are eating and to better manage portion control.
You also need to make sure you are getting enough of the nutrients that are especially important to support your exercise efforts. These include:
- Vitamin D: Critical for strong, healthy bones. You can increase your vitamin D levels by spending time in the sun, eating vitamin D-fortified foods and/or taking supplements if indicated by a competent healthcare provider.
- Vitamins C and E, the mineral selenium and beta-carotene: These antioxidants play important roles in protecting us from the oxidative stress that increased oxygen consumption during exercise may cause. Foods rich in vitamin C include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, cantaloupe, spinach, bell peppers, kiwi, strawberries, mango, kale and papaya. Almonds, spinach, sweet potato, avocado, wheat germ and butternut squash are delicious foods that contain vitamin E. Brazil nuts, oysters, whole grains and meats also contain selenium. Beta-carotene is essentially vitamin A. It is found in plant foods, like carrots and sweet potatoes.
- B vitamins: These vitamins are critical because they help your body make red blood cells and energy from the food you eat. Some foods that contain B vitamins include fish, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy, leafy green vegetables, beans and peas. Some cereals and breads also have added B vitamins.
- Iron: Required for the formation of oxygen-carrying proteins. Iron-rich foods include shellfish, quinoa, spinach, liver, legumes, pumpkin seeds and turkey.
- Calcium: Key for strong, healthy bones. Foods that are rich in calcium include dairy products, dark leafy vegetables, soybeans and fortified cereals.
- Zinc: Helps with the growth, building and repair of muscle tissue. Lamb, pumpkin seeds, grass fed beef, mushrooms, chickpeas, spinach and chicken are all foods that contain zinc.
- Magnesium: Is an important cofactor for hundreds of processes and reactions in the body. Foods containing magnesium include spinach, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, kefir, almonds, black beans, avocado, figs, dark chocolate, and bananas.
Before starting any exercise program, be sure to check with your doctor and consider getting a comprehensive nutrient test. This is the only way to know where you stand nutritionally. And if you are imbalanced, you can make relevant tweaks to your diet and maybe also consider taking good quality supplements.
Enjoy your healthy life!
The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses, and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products, and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.