I decided to do something about it. I lived right down the road from Highbanks at the time, so I started going over there after work. I would run into the woods, up and down the hills, and get so out of breath I would have to stop and walk. After a few minutes of walking, I would run again. It was so hard. My face would turn bright red, I would get a headache, and the whole time a voice in my head was telling me how fat and out of shape I was.
It was the opposite of empowering.
When I'd get home from my run, I'd head straight for the cereal cupboard. I had kids in the house at the time, so we had all kinds of cereals to choose from. I'd grab that box of Frosted Flakes or Corn Puffs and eat by the handful, like an out of control lunatic. Crunch. Crunch. Then I'd make dinner.
Back then, I would get on the scale daily. It would go down a pound, then the next day, back up. Over and over, again. It never moved consistently in the direction that I wanted, despite working so hard. I felt incredibly discouraged because there was no way I could work any harder than I was. I was losing any belief I had in fitness. It didn't work for me.
I started to read about exercise physiology and weight loss. I learned that lower intensity exercise burns more fat, and the higher intensity exercises burn mostly carbs. All I knew was when I ran, it was really difficult. I bought a heart rate monitor and went back to the Highbanks trails and started to run. My heart rate shot way up within a few minutes. It was way too high.
I went back and calculated my heart rate zones. There are four of them for weight loss, zones 1, 2, 3 and 4. I was spending all my exercise time in zone 4. I was burning all my stored carbs for fuel, wiping out my blood sugar and muscle glycogen, and then replacing it with sugar when I got home. I was never accessing my fat.
Well, I wanted to burn fat. Why doesn't weight loss happen the harder you work?! That's an answer that could fill up a textbook or two. But the bottom line is this. There are four heart rate zones that you must know if your goal is to burn fat. And you have to spend most of your exercise time in zone 2.
We can get tricked by total calories into thinking that the higher the heart rate, the better, because that is where more calories are burned. But we have to look at this in detail. When I got metabolic testing done, I learned some interesting information.
Total calories burned did increase through the zones.
Zone 1 528 calories/hour
Zone 2 546 calories/hour
Zone 3 618 calories/hour
Zone 4 702 calories/hour
I understand, then, why most people go for zone 4. I want to get my miles in as quickly as possible and burn the most calories for my time invested. I get that. But that misses a crucial piece of information.
Total fat burned decreases sharply through the zones.
Zone 1 35% calories from fat
Zone 2 27% calories from fat
Zone 3 16% calories from fat
Zone 4 2% calories from fat
In zone 4, I burn all my sugar, then replace it when I eat. I never access my fat stores. All I want to do is become a fat burning machine. What is the key?
Most exercise should be done in zones 1 and 2. Zone 2 is considered the sweet spot, where you get the maximum calorie burn, while still burning a nice fuel mix of carbs and fat.
For exercise, total calories burned is not the information you want to be looking for. It's Time In Zone 2.
So I calculated my heart rate zones, programmed my zone 2 into my monitor and went back to Highbanks. This time I didn't try to go as fast or as hard as humanly possible. I went by data only. I slowed down to a walk, and stayed in my zone 2 except for those bigger hills, where I would go into zones 3 and 4, but only for a minute or two. I made sure I slowed down enough to recover back to zone 2 after each hill.
For the first time in my life, I started to like exercise. It wasn't awful and the mental red lights weren't flashing. It almost felt easy. I was much more in control of my food choices, have fewer and fewer sugar cravings, no headache, not exhausted, and had good energy the rest of the day. Exercise should not rob us of energy for our life, it should boost it.
The hardest thing about switching to zone 2 training was how it messed with my mind. It felt too easy. How could this be right? But I knew my way didn't work, and I was willing to trust my heart rate data.
It was working. I remember the first time I saw a 2 pound drop on the scale. I wasn't ready to believe completely yet, because in the past two pounds down meant two pounds back up the next time I weighed. But that didn't happen this time. I was accessing my fat stores and literally burning them off my body as I walked. It took awhile to deal with some lingering food issues, but I ended up burning 50 pounds off. I never though that was possible.
The false belief was I had to work intensely, basically starve myself and lose weight like that.
The truth was I could eat lots of healthy food, and as long as I was working out mostly in zone 2, I was going to lose weight and still have energy for my day and my life.
The best part about it? It was empowering. I finally felt like I was making a choice to do something good for me, and I not only knew what to do, I was doing it.
There's just nothing better than that.