Despite our best efforts, many of us will at one time or another find that we can no longer fit into our favorite pair of jeans. The natural reaction is to say to ourselves that it is time to lose a bit of weight. But is it really just weight that we want to lose?
Lose fat not muscle
The bulk of our bodies is made up of muscle and fat. Muscle is denser and so a pound of muscle is much smaller than a pound of fat. When most talk about wanting to lose weight, what they really mean is that they want to burn fat. It is important to make this distinction, because the most effective ways to burn fat actually involve gaining muscle. Muscle burns more calories than fat in a resting state, and will continue to burn calories at an increased rate after exercise that exhausts muscle tissue.
The distinction between losing muscle and losing fat is important to remember also because many of the long-duration mid-intensity exercises that we associate with losing weight (like endless spinning, stair-master and elliptical sessions) actually have the effect of “cannibalizing” muscles. Yes, that’s right – long and steady cardio eats muscle. You will lose weight if you watch your calorie intake and live on a cardio machine. But the result is not pretty – with the loss of muscle tissue, you might find yourself becoming “skinny-fat.”
So, what are the best sports for burning fat?
We can think about this in two ways – which sports help to build muscle and which sports prevent that muscle from being eaten? The best sports for burning fat do both, and will involve some combination of the following:
Lifting heavy things
This can mean lifting weights or it can also mean lifting your own body. Time spent in the gym should focus on challenging the major muscle chains in your body in natural movements. Squats, presses, deads and other bar bell work are highly effective ways to exhaust and build muscle. Women, you need to do this too – unless you are taking steroids, you will not bulk up. Dedicated body-weight exercises are also excellent ways to build muscle tone – you can continue to challenge yourself with progressively more difficult movements. Non-gym based sports that involve lifting heavy things can include pole dancing, parkour, and even yoga! Yoga has the added benefit of reducing stress hormones that are known to hold fat around the belly!
Moving fast for short periods
Moving your body from one place to another as quickly as possible is a great way not only to maintain your cardiovascular health, but to stimulate fast twitch muscle growth. This is the logic behind high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and Tabata training. At the gym, you can combine this with plyometric exercises like burbees, or weight work – HIIT works really well with kettle bell swings! Think about any sport that involves quick stops and starts, changes of direction, and changes of intensity – football, rugby, tennis, rowing, speed-skating, soccer – the list goes on!
Remember the golden rule – build muscle by lifting heavy things, protect muscle by moving fast in order to burn fat – scale will go up as you become more muscular, but you will look better in your jeans as you lose fat.