Aerobics Routine Fat Burning Heart Rate: The Fat Burning Zone Myth | Not Your Average Fitness Tips

Aerobics Routine Fat Burning Heart Rate: The Fat Burning Zone Myth

A lot of people that are beginning an aerobics routine wonder about their target fat burning heart rate.  However, they fail to consider that you don’t actually burn the most fat in the so-called fat burning zone.  So, how did this myth perpetuate itself?  Simple, there is some truth in the statement but it’s been skewed by people who want to make exercise easier.


Fat Burning Heart Rate Calculation

Before I debunk the fat burning zone myth, I would like to discuss target heart rate calculations.  First you have to calculate your max heart rate.  The simplest way is to subtract your age from 220.  So if you’re 30 years old, your max heart rate is around 190 beats per minute.  Generally, the fat burning zone is thought to be between 60-65% of your max heart rate.  Therefore, the fat burning heart rate zone for a 30 year old would be between 114 and 124bpm.

Fat Burning Zone Myth

When you exercise in the fat burning zone, you do actually burn the highest PERCENTAGE of calories from fat.  The problem is that higher intensity exercise burns more calories and more fat calories due to a significant after-burn effect whereby your body continues burning fat after you complete your aerobics routine.  Sadly, the bottom line is that there’s no shortcut when it comes to burning fat.

If you’re a numbers person, the chart below shows how many calories a 130lb woman burns during cardio based on a study from The 24/5 Complete Personal Training Manual:

As you can see, the percentage of fat calories burned is higher but total fat calories burned is actually lower.

A Better Aerobics Routine

So, how can you burn more calories?  This video sums it all up:

Stop the presses!  Workout as hard as you can!?  That’s it?  Yes, in fact that is it.  An intense workout is what it takes to burn more calories and ultimately lose more fat.  Does the fat burning zone have a place in such a routine?  I’d argue that it does.  Low intensity cardio done in the fat burning zone allows your body time to recover.  You can’t possibly perform a high intensity workout every day, but you can do some low intensity cardio like walking every day or intersperse periods of fat burning cardio within interval training.

As I’ve discussed previously, my favorite cardio routine involves high intensity interval training (HIIT).  After a warm-up, I perform 10 minutes of short interval HIIT (15 second sprint, 45 second jog), 10-25 minutes of steady state fat burning cardio (light jogging), and 10 minutes of long interval HIIT (1 minute fast run, 1 minute jog).  Done 3 times per week, this is all the intense cardio I need.  I walk on alternate days when possible.

Don’t Try to Take the Easy Road

The fat burning zone myth would have you believe that you can burn more fat by working out less intensely.  The truth is that “there is no free lunch.”  You can’t expect to burn more calories by working out less intensely.  While your fat burning heart rate provides a good range in which to perform low intensity, steady state cardio, a successful aerobics routine is going to have to include some high intensity cardio that gets you close to your max heart rate.  That’s when the real fat burning zone kicks in!  Check out Visual Impact Cardio for a full 8 week routine.

28 Responses to “Aerobics Routine Fat Burning Heart Rate: The Fat Burning Zone Myth”

  • Tom:

    Good reminder. I know many people opt for the 1 hour on a treadmill routine in an effort to burn fat, but I agree the intensity factor is where it’s at.

  • Nice! I’ve never seen this assumption challenged as well as you have here. I’d add that short, intense workouts also boost your metabolism and release anabolic hormones – both of which help you to burn fat long after your workout has ended.

  • Cool Dave I like your idea. I tried measuring my heart rate and was just too hard and gave up so my cardio is based on perceived excertion! either that or I go flat out ..haha

  • Achievement is a ladder that can not be climbed with your hands in your pocket

  • Josh:

    Man, you nailed this one! Those old training ranges from the ’80’s (remember all the posters?) are just silly.

    Does a fighter trying to drop a weight class focus on his “fat burning zone?” No, he or she works their butt off and gets there come hell or high water.

  • What a great explanation! I am personally sick of listening to this lie being passed as fact. Luckily, it’s been debunked. Just keep fighting the good fight.

  • Tom,
    I don’t mind people spending an hour on the treadmill, but I hope they know they can burn more fat by doing 20-30 minutes of HIIT. Better yet, do 20 minutes of HIIT and then do 40 minutes of steady state cardio. Now that’s a fat burning routine!

    Glad I added some value to the fat burning debate. Good point about the metabolism boost.

    Accurately measuring your heart rate and deciding what zone to stay in is tough. Consider that I provided the simplest formula for determining your fat burning heart rate. There are alternative formulas that would suggest your rate should be 20-30bpm higher. It’s really a toss up.

    You really nailed it with the fighter analogy. No one who absolutely HAS to lose weight quickly would choose training in the fat burning zone rather than the anaerobic zone.

    Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Too many people worry about what zone their vital organs are in and aren’t doing the damn workout.

    Most body builders and fitness professionals have agreed that the tried steady state cardio has been the gold standard for years, but I have to agree with you Dave:

    Doing steady state cardio + an INTENSE fat burning session consisting of body weight exercises, db swings, snatches, a whole heap of clean and presses or rounds on the heavy bag would blow a typical steady state cardio session to the weeds.

    People presume that because you are doing steady state cardio for 45-60 mins, that you can’t do HIIT for 45-60 mins, THAT is why they say that steady state cardio burns more fat.

    Some people may not physically be capable of HIIT or intense cardio sessions for that long, but when you are in good shape, doing half an hour of body weight workouts and then some boxing rounds or intense high rep weight lifting is an amazing way to burn a huge amount of calories compared to sitting on an exercise bike gawking at the television

  • Johnny,
    You hit the nail on the head. Too many people are focused on doing the easy workout instead of taking on he challenge of intense exercising. Hopefully they’ll learn in time that achieving fast results is hard work.

  • Paul:

    I totally agree with what you are saying. There is no easy way out other than doing the necessary correct excerise to burn the fat you want to loose. I would, like everyone else, like to do it the easy way but hard work and determination will get you there. Thanks for this straight forward information.

  • Paul,
    Hard work, determination, and a consistent effort go a long way.

  • adam:

    Intensity trumps duration.
    Consistency trumps intensity
    The will to be better trumps it all!
    Work hard, play hard and get healthy.

  • Adam,
    Very well said!

  • the fat burning chart is a big eye opener for a lot of people. Burning a higher percentage of fat vs burning more fat overall is a cool study, and really a wake up call for people to mix up their routine.

    I have a good friend who is a long distance runner but never seemed to lose weight per se. She just got on an intensity program to add some sprinting and weight training into her weekly routine and it has helped immensely!

    Like you said, there is no easy road(in fitness or in life!), the harder you work the more you get out of it. Pretty easy concept that most people try to ignore or find the “hidden secret” around!

    Thanks for keeping it real

  • Martin:

    When I exercise I usually do it intensly in cardio by cycling. I am 56 and I usually average over 40 minutes a BPM between 150 and 165 and will max in sprints to 180 to 190. I rest for a daythen back to it. Often for the rest day I’ll swim in the 140 to 150 BPM range for 45 minutes. My rest rate is usually 45 to 55 BPM. Am I overdoing it. I don’t get muscle pain after the exercise but sometimes when I really go for it. I feel like I’m not working hard enough when I don’t get over 155 BPM on the cycle. Should I slow down?

  • Ryan,
    Good points about working harder to achieve better results.

    Tough to say if you are overdoing it. Here’s a post I did on symptoms of overtraining and exercise addiction:

    Personally I think daily cardiovascular exercise is great. As long as your leg muscles aren’t exhausted from cycling one day and swimming the next, I think you’ll be fine. Just remember to take a week off every 8-12 weeks to make sure your muscles have adequate recovery time. It’s likely that your body will let you know if you’re abusing it. If you’re at all concerned, I’d seek a physician’s advice since they could identify whether you have any other problems that might prevent you from intensely exercising on a daily basis.


  • Ed:

    Good post! Thanks for the reminder about the importance of intensity in our exercise routines. There’s nothing like getting that long “after-burn” to keep you burning calories.

  • Ed,
    Intensity is the way to go and you’re right about the after-burn.

  • HIIT is the best way of cardio training. But if you want to lose weight, the training is not enough. A proper dietary plan is the first step of losing weight. If you eat tons of junk food every day, a standart cardio program won’t save you from the fat. Don’t forget also to include training with weights in your program. This will prevent you from losing muscle mass and will make your metabolism faster!

  • Jackie,
    All very good tips. Thanks.

  • I begin an aerobics routine since 5 years ago. But now I stop counting calories. I would love to do it to be healthy but still eat my favorite food without being too much. As long as I am healthy, I eat what I want and still do exercise.

  • Sofia,
    That sounds like a good strategy.

  • *Sigh* … I suspect you are probably right. There is no such thing as a free lunch. It makes sense to me that the best cardio workout would be the one that is most intense. However, this has to be balanced with the reality that many reluctant couch potato types find it difficult enough to do even a modest cardio workout, let alone the challenging workout routine you propose. I don’t have the answers, but I think the problem is real. The way America is today, I think almost any level of exercise needs to be encouraged.

  • Mikey,
    I don’t recommend all out HIIT for beginners. You do have to gradually work your way up to that level of fitness. That’s when low or modest intensity cardio can come in handy. Once you’re able to handle that, move on to more intense cardio. As you said, any exercise is better than no exercise.

  • So is this the premise of all those 15 min workouts? Like most fitness programs, the people who really need it likely do not have the physical capacity to perform a HIT workout.

  • Laura,
    An excellent point which is why I usually recommend beginners start by improving their aerobic capacity. A simple fast paced walk can turn into a jog and can ultimately lead to interval training and HIIT routines. Patience and dedication go a long way.

  • I do exercise everyday in order to burn the excess fat of my body. But I wanted to burn more fat every time I do exercise so I can see quick results afterwards. Thanks to the video provided.

  • I find my FitBit to be an invaluable aid to keeping track of where I am and to beat the weekly stats that are emailed to you. SO easy to use. Highly recommend it.

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