The enemy is clear: Body fat. Whether you want to look leaner and sexier or reduce the risk of health problems such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes, you'll have to shed that unwanted fat.
Flab's stubbornness to go away has fueled a billion-dollar industry of magic bullet pills, diets, machines and exercise DVDs. Still, shedding the fat can seem almost impossible -- and it may be because we have the gun pointed at ourselves. We sabotage our fat-burning fantasies with bad planning, poor tactics and inaccurate tracking.
Get out of your own way. Avoid these common mistakes to make the fight against flab a fair one.
While cardio burns more fat as a percentage of total calories burned, it burns far fewer calories than more intense exercise, meaning you burn less fat overall.
Shawn Arent, associate professor of exercise science at Rutgers University
Problem: Your Workout is Just Long, Slow Cardio
The path to a leaner body isn't a long, slow march -- or bike or stair-climb, for that matter.
"People stick with (slow cardio) because they're told it's the 'fat-burning zone'," says Shawn Arent, associate professor of exercise science at Rutgers University. But what that doesn't tell you, he says, is that while cardio burns more fat as a percentage of total calories burned, it burns far fewer calories than more intense exercise, meaning you burn less fat overall.
"Slow cardio burns very few calories," says certified strength and conditioning specialist Craig Ballantyne, owner of TurbulenceTraining.com and author of the book "Turbulence Training." And unlike other forms of exercise, which keep burning calories after your workout, inefficient cardio sessions stop chipping away at fat as soon as you step off the machine.
The solution: Do a mix of strength training and interval cardio for efficient burning during your workout and after.
"The best thing to do is metabolic resistance training, where you do supersets and circuits of intense, total-body exercises, with incomplete recovery so you get a lot of work done in a short amount of time," Ballantyne says. In workouts such as these, you move to the next exercise while you're still somewhat breathless from the previous one, mixing cardio work into a strength workout that builds muscle -- muscle that feeds on calories and fat to grow even after the workout ends.
For a similar effect on a cardio machine, Arent says, alternate short bursts of intense cardio effort with slower intervals of recovery time. You'll burn at a higher rate during the intense periods, and will continue to burn at that rate as your body recovers -- in the same way that your heart keeps racing while you're bent over after a sprint.
To perform a simple cardio interval workout, warm up for five minutes using the cardio method of your choice. Then perform 30 seconds of intense work -- about an eight out of 10 effort. After 30 seconds, perform a slower, recovery period at four out of 10 for 30 to 45 seconds. Continue alternating between these intervals for about 20 minutes. Over time, try to make your intense intervals more intense, and perform more rounds.
Problem: No Planning, No Tracking
Shedding fat is tricky enough, but many dieters only have a vague idea of how much they're eating.
"Too many people lie to themselves about how compliant they are with their nutrition," Ballantyne says. They're good most of the day, she says, but there's a handful of this snack that's off-plan, or a bite of chocolate that's noncompliant. These bites are forgotten because nothing's recorded. "Then they struggle and can't figure out why they can't overcome a plateau."
The same problem arises in the gym, Arent says.
"You wouldn't set off driving to California without a map. You'd get lost," he says. But many gym-goers walk in without a plan, doing whatever tickles their fancy -- and not tracking how their session progresses.
The solution: Keep a food journal and a workout journal, and follow a specific workout plan.
When you go to the gym, "have a game plan, period," Tumminello says. "Whether it's certain body parts you're going to work or a circuit or something, have some sort of plan you can go in and execute instead of guessing."
When you're doing the workout, track how much you've done so you can progress -- increasing reps, weights and time so you'll actually build muscle and improve. And do the same with your eating.
"Research shows that people who use a food journal get better results than those who don't," Ballantyne says. You'll be able to identify the times you cheat so you can avoid temptation. For bonus points, take photos of everything you eat and post them online.
"Create a blog or journal on a weight loss forum and post your meals there," she says. "You'll be less tempted to cheat when it means lying to the world."
Problem: Working Out, Then Pigging Out
If you did your workout, you can have the large fries, right? Not if fat loss is your goal, Arent says.
"That's true if you're looking at weight maintenance," he says. But if you're trying to lose weight or fat, "eating extra cancels out the effect [of the workout]."
The solution: Try to make a dent in your calories with both diet and exercise.
Losing a pound requires cutting 3,500 calories from your diet or burning the same amount. By reducing your calories by 500 each day, you'll lose a pound each week.
"You can figure out how to make that dent in your energy intake between exercise and diet," Arent says. Leave a few bites of food on your plate at each meal to reduce your intake by 250 calories and do 250 calories of exercise -- the equivalent of a 2.5-mile run. And don't overdo it when the workout's done.
"There's some evidence that people are hungrier after they work out, he says. "Does this negate the effects of exercise? Only if you let it."
Problem: Not Eating After a Workout
"If you're not eating after your workout, it's harder to build lean muscle that helps you burn fat," Arent says. Exercise breaks down muscle and uses up its fuel; if you don't refuel your body soon after, it breaks down other muscle fibers to refill the tank, undoing some of the workout benefits.
The solution: Eat a mix of protein and simple sugar after your workout.
The best time to consume simple sugars -- like those found in Kool-Aid and fruit, and opposed to complex carbohydrates -- is right after you've worked out, Arent says. Your muscles have used up their stored carbohydrate energy and can quickly use this simple sugar to refuel.
Protein will help your muscles grow, which will lead to further fat-burning. This mixture will also help your body recover from the workout faster, Arent says, so you'll be less sore and can work out more frequently, increasing your results.
Don't Do Too Much, Too Fast
Change is hard. That's easy to forget that when it comes to our bodies.
"You'll jump on a diet and try to follow some silly fad instead of making logical changes to your lifestyle," says Jeremy Frisch, owner and director of Achieve Performance Training in Clinton, Massachusetts. "Most people should be concentrating on eating more fruits and vegetables and lean protein. They should be trying to get rid of bread, sugar and soda."
"People set up these unrealistic time frames, or say stuff like 'I'm going to get up at 5 a.m. every day,' " says Nick Tumminello, a Florida-based strength and conditioning coach and the creator of fitness DVDs..
Instead, make small, gradual changes, and build on small successes.
"For this week, try to drink more water," Frisch says. If you're successful, continue drinking the water and add another small victory next week, like eating a piece of fruit with lunch. "Instead of making this huge shift, make the different changes week after week."
"If all you can give yourself is 20 minutes per day, start with that if it's something you can stick with," Tumminello says. "When you want to do more than that, you'll learn to make time."