The 5 keys for fat loss and optimal fitness

People are always in search for the “secret” to weight loss and optimal health.  I’ve been in the fitness industry for 18 years now and I’m here to tell you…there is no secret! While there are a lot of factors that will make or break one’s success for optimal health, I have found there are five keys to it all.  By following and using these five keys not only will you have a greater chance of achieving your fitness and weight loss goals, but you are more likely to enjoy the process as well!


Two Studies with the Same Results

The University of Texas and University of Oklahoma recently conducted a 16-week weight loss study. Two different groups were measured, an exercise group and a control (non-exercise) group.  Each week the exercise group performed three hours of strength exercise with an Olympic weightlifting coach and circuit training for two hours with a group exercise instructor.  During the study, researchers collected data on body composition and a host of other measures.  As expected, the exercise group did get better results…but not much:

  • The control group gained 1 lb of lean mass, lost 0.5 lb of fat, and lost 0.5% body fat
  • The exercise group gained 3 lb of lean mass, lost 2 lb of fat, and lost 1.5% body fat

WHY? No nutritional adjustments were made for either group!

Bottom line, for true health and successful weight/fat loss, you must eat a balanced and healthy diet.

What habits consist of a “balanced and healthy” diet?

Slow Down! Many of us eat way too fast.  It takes about 20 minutes for our sensation of fullness to kick in.  The pathway from our stomach, to our brain, and back is long.  If you eat too quickly, you are more likely to overeat by the time your brain can communicate it’s time to stop.  The long term goal should be taking 15-20 minutes to consume each meal.  I know this may be too ambitious for a lot of us and that’s okay!  Just by slowing down by 1-2 minutes can make a big difference.  From there you can work towards the 15-20 minute goal.

Stop Eating at 80% Fullness: Rather than eating to the point of fullness, focus on eating until you are no longer hungry.  In conjunction with slowing down, this again will allow plenty of time for your brain to communicate that it’s time to end the meal.  Many benefits come of this, including better overall appetite cues, improved digestion, and increased performance with your workouts as well.

Eat every 2-4 hours: When you go prolonged periods without any food, your body goes into conservation mode simply because it doesn’t know when the next meal is coming.  As a result, the body holds onto any excess fat storage which a lot of people would prefer do without.  By eating smaller and more frequent meals this will keep your metabolism running at higher levels throughout the day and is more likely to let go of the extra stores.   

Eat Fruits and/or Vegetables with Each Meal: There is a good reason why mothers harp on their children to eat their fruits and veggies!  Nutrient dense and low in calories, fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, and actually help buffer the body’s acidic response to protein and grains.  One medium sized fruit, ½ cup of raw chopped fruit or vegetables, and 1 cup of raw, leafy vegetables each equal one serving.  Aim for 1-2 servings per meal.

Include Protein Dense Foods & Health Fats:  Up to1 serving (20-30g) for women and 2 servings for men (40-60 g) should be included with each meal.  A portion size of protein is visually about the size of the palm of your hand.  Protein dense foods include lean meats such as ground beef, chicken, turkey, bison.  Other great protein sources include salmon, tuna, eggs, cottage cheese, tofu, beans, etc.  Also, a mixture of fats should also be part of a balanced diet.  Vitamins A, D, E, and K, are critical to optimal human function, and can only be absorbed by the body with adequate fat in our diet.  Eating a variety of meats, cheeses, nuts, olive oil, and a fish oil supplement are all great ways to getting our daily dose of fat.

Eat “Quality” Carbohydrates: Cut back on the processed, sugary carbs like juice, white flour, muffins, etc and focus your efforts on eating more whole food and fiber rich carbs.  This includes a mix of vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grain breads and pastas, quinoa, long grain rice, etc.  Typically, vegetables, beans, legumes, and most fruit can be consumed often and at any time of the day.  For breads, pasta, and rice, ideally these should be consumed after workouts or physical activity, especially if fat loss is a goalPrimarily this is because the body has its highest tolerance of carbohydrates post-workout than any other time. This will help refuel the body without any carbohydrate “spill over” into fat storage.    

Great Nutritional Sources:


 Social Support: “Network of individuals that provides feedback, constructive criticism, and encouragement for one’s lifestyle choices.

“You are the average of the five people closest to you.”  How does your social support group look?

  • Does your spouse/partner follow healthy lifestyle habits such as exercising regularly, watching what they eat, and taking nutritional supplements?
  • At your workplace, do your coworkers regularly bring in treats like     cookies, donuts, and other snacks?
  •  If you go out to eat more than once per week, do the people you dine with order healthy selections?
  • Do you belong to any clubs, groups, or teams that meet at least twice per week and do some physical exercise (this does not include a gym membership)?
  • Do the people you live or work with schedule activities for you that interfere with your pre-established exercise time?

If most of your answers made you raise an eyebrow…then you may need to align yourself with a stronger group.  It’s not to say that you need to sever all ties in your existing relationships, but you do need to be aware if you have any “Crabs in your bucket.”

Crab mentality, sometimes referred to as crabs in the bucket, describes a way of thinking best described by the phrase “if I can’t have it, neither can you.” The metaphor refers to a pot of crabs.   Individually, the crabs could easily escape from the pot, but instead, they grab at each other in a useless “king of the hill” competition which prevents any from escaping and ensures their collective demise. The analogy in human behavior is that members of a group will attempt to “pull down” (negate or diminish the importance of) any member who achieves success beyond the others, out of envy, conspiracy, or competitive feelings.

Strategies to overcome the “Crab” obstacle

  • Encourage your friends, family, and co-workers to join you in social events that compliment your goals (healthy dinners, physical challenges, group workouts).
  • Join a network of individuals that work towards common goals.  This can be a hiking/running group, a recreation sports league, or fitness club.
  • Consider hiring a professional.  IDEA, the international health and fitness organization found that 75% of individuals that workout aren’t getting the results they want.  And of the 25% who were, 90% of them work with a personal trainer.


Saying “I want to lose weight” is not enough.  Goals need to be focused, and realistic.  A common acronym for goal setting is SMART, Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Reward Based & Realistic, and with a Timeframe.  “I want to lose 20 pounds of body fat in 6 months and then I will get myself that new swimsuit.”  This is a great example of a SMART goal.  Not only does it cover each component, but it is realistic as well.  Since the recommended range for permanent weight loss is 1-2 pounds per week, a goal of losing 20 pounds in 5 months is honest and very achievable.

“A Goal without a plan is just a wish.”  In other words, action needs to be taken!  Include five steps with each corresponding goal for the coming year.  Your steps should be conducive and relate directly to your goals.

Here’s how it looks using our same weight loss example:

SMART Goal:  Lose 20 pounds of body fat in 6 months

Action Step #1 – Get a gym membership by the end of the week

Action Step #2 – Do 45-60 minutes of cardio on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays

Action Step #3 – Do strength training for 1 hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays

Action Step #4 – Eat 4 to 6 small healthy meals/snacks per day

Action Step #5 – Drink 10 to 12 cups of water every day

Notice how the action steps focus on behavior not the outcome.  With a behavior focus, the goal becomes framed around activities that are under your control.  With this approach we detach from the outcome, but ultimately our behaviors shape the outcome.

More examples:

  • I will commit to completing at least 90% of my scheduled workouts for the next eight weeks.
  • I will commit to only one “free meal” per week for the next eight weeks.
  • I will commit to eating breakfast everyday for the next eight weeks.
  • I will commit to taking a multivitamin and an omega 3 supplement daily for the next eight weeks.


Fat Burning Zone Myth

The discussion usually begins like this, “If you work too hard during cardio you’ll burn less fat!” Yes, the myth of the “fat burning zone” is alive and well! I’ve been in the fitness industry for over 15 years and it still amazes me that this topic still exists. But, with cardio equipment manufactures continuing to display low intensity training as “fat loss” on their monitors and a percentage of fitness consultants still prescribing low intensity cardio as the most effective method for weight loss, it’s no wonder that the confusion still exists! The question is why?

Specifically the “fat burning zone” is 50-60% of your maximum heart rate. Past research has shown that you burn a higher percentage of fat while training at this intensity. People were quick to conclude that this must lead to more fat loss. The problem with this theory is the most important factor is left out, the rate of calories being burned. Also, fat is still being used at higher workout intensities and ultimately will result in more fat calories expended overall. Take for example, the average exerciser burns approximately 8 calories/minute while training in the fat burning zone with approximately 50% coming from fat. Compare that with an exerciser working at 70-80% of max heart rate (“Cardiovascular Zone”) the rate increases to 11 calories/minute on average with approximately 40% of fat being used. The final result:

Fat Burning Zone (50-60% of max heart rate)

• Approximately 50% of calories come from fat

• Approximately 8 calories/minute are expended

• 60 minutes x 8 calories/minute = 480 calories

• 50% x 480 calories = 240 fat calories

Cardiovascular Zone (70-80% of max heart rate)

• Approximately 40% of calories come from fat

• Approximately 11 calories/minute are expended

• 60 minutes x 11 calories/minute = 640 calories

• 40% x 640 calories = 264 fat calories

The cardiovascular zone yields more for both total calories and fat calories burned! And as a bonus, your fitness levels will improve even more! This is key, because the body will begin to burn more fat during and after workouts. This happens because the body begins to spare carbohydrates, a process known as “glycogen sparing.” Since carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel, and since we have a limited supply, the body naturally begins to use a higher percentage of fat during workouts as our fitness improves.

Also, after intense exercise, the body has to work even harder to restore equilibrium to our body temperature, respiratory rate, and hormone levels. This requires high amounts of oxygen, a process known as Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). With this increased demand for oxygen, more fuel is required from our body during post workout recovery to achieve homeostasis. And guess what the primary fuel is during this process…FAT!

The take home message is that there is no magical “fat burning zone”. For best results, cardiovascular training should include a variety of intensities. While there are countless benefits to training at higher intensities, low intensity workouts are still important and should be included into your routine, especially if you are just beginning a program. And even an avid exercisers in need of some “active recovery” can benefit from lower intensities a couple times per week. Outlined below are some recommended training guidelines for overall cardiovascular fitness.

Cardiovascular Training Guidelines

Structure 2–3 long and easy intensity workouts each week. These sessions should be 45 minutes plus in duration with a target heart rate ranging between 50-70% of your maximum. These workouts should be feel comfortable, but have you still breaking a sweat. These workouts effectively target your aerobic energy system which will help develop fat burning enzymes, help maximize recovery, and should be your starting point if you’re just beginning a program.

Structure 1–2 moderate length and intensity aerobic workouts each week. These sessions should be 30–40 minutes in duration and target heart rate should range between 70-80% of your maximum. The level of effort in these workouts should be comfortable but challenging.

Structure 1–2 short and intense interval workouts into your program each week. These workouts should last between 20–30 minutes with your target heart rate ranging between 80-90% of your max during work intervals. During these workouts your breathing is heavier and will definitely be above your comfort zone

Strength Training Principles & Guidlines

Principle of Overload:  A greater than normal stress or load on the body is required for training adaptation to occur. The body will always adapt to exercise over time and once this happens a different stimulus is required for additional strength gains. The process should be gradual and is usually accomplished by altering training intensity or increasing the amount of weight lifted. As a rule, when you can perform two or more repetitions over your repetition goal in the last set of two consecutive workouts, intensity should be increased. Weight increases should range between 2.5-5% for isolated exercises (e.g. tricep pressdowns) and 5-10% for exercises that utilize larger muscle groups (e.g. bench press).

Principle of Variation:  Much like the principle of overload, except it involves altering one or a combination of training variables. Specifically, speed of movement, rest periods, training frequency, exercise order, or style of exercises. Take a dumbbell lunge for example. We could vary this exercise by switching to split jumps which would alter two variables, the speed of movement and the style of exercise.

Train for movement:  Muscles work in synergy.  The term “synergy” comes from the latin word meaning to “work together.”  The nervous system innervates the musculoskeletal system to work as a complete unit.  A baseball player throwing a ball with maximum velocity or simply the act of running best illustrates this point.  The muscles work in harmony.  Performing more compound exercises that involve multiple joints and allow the body to work as a whole unit has a higher carry over into day to day life.  Also, training for movement will yield greater strength gains, improve coordination, and increase stability.  Exercise Example: Squat Row

Train all planes:  The human body works in three different planes of movement (sagittal, frontal, and transverse).  Basically, the body is made to rotate, move forwards/backwards and side to side.  Thus, it’s important to train for movement in all directions.  This will help minimize muscle/movement imbalances, decrease risk of injury, and improve overall function.  Exercise Example: Rotational Cable Chest Press

Train Balance & Stability:  Strength is transferable from an unstable environment to a stable environment but not the other way around” (Orr 2009).  In other words, training muscles strictly in a machine based settling will yield little or no improvement for your balance or stability.  In order to improve balance & stability, you must train for it!  Try performing traditional exercises on a BOSU, stability ball or in a single leg position.  Not only with it improve balance and stability, but strength as well.  Exercise Example: Single Leg Squat

Train Standing:  In can’t be emphasized enough!  We sit enough throughout the day between work and our daily commute.  Try to perform the majority of your exercises in a standing/upright position for better overall functional strength and improved posture.

Using these principles, incorporate strength training into your routine at least 2-3 times per week.  Focusing primarily on total body movements.   Sets and reps are based on individual goals and needs.  Here are the recommended ranges:


  • 1-3 sets
  • 12+reps
  • 50-70% max
  • Rest 30-60 seconds between sets


  • 3-5 sets
  • 6-12 reps
  • 75-85% max
  • Rest 45-90 seconds between sets

Maximal Strength

  • 4-6 sets
  • 1-5 reps
  • 85-100% max
  • Rest 3-5 minutes between sets


Maintaining focus year after year can be challenging, especially if we’re working out just for the sake of working out.  Giving your workouts a greater purpose and training for activities outside of the gym can help you stay on track…permanently  It’s easy to skip a workout if you lack a specific purpose, but if a ½ marathon is lurking around the corner, odds are you’ll stay consistent.  Besides, most of us have recreational activities we enjoy like running, cycling, basketball or snowboarding.  Focusing workouts towards improving your recreational skills can help keep you focused and consistent year in and year out.

You are always ready! Does this sound like you? “I need to get into better shape before I can do something that.” Quite the contrary! There’s always a wide range of participants, men, women, all with different fitness levels in a variety of events every year. You don’t have to be an elite athlete to participate.  The only obstacle you have to overcome is making the decision to do it.  But once you do an amazing thing happens.  Your purpose training purpose changes automatically.  Instead of worrying about mastering the scale, now your focus is on mastering your fitness.

Have Fun! Remember growing up in a world where there were no deadlines, meetings, errands, etc?  We simply played.  Whatever your motivation for getting in shape I encourage you find your fun!  Life always comes with responsibility, but we can still take the time to reconnect with that “timeless” part of ourselves. Whether it’s the Dirty Dash, going on a scenic hike, or simply playing with your kids, take the time to do it every week.  Follow this formula and you’ll achieve results greater than imagined and enjoy the journey along the way!