Fasted exercise, faster fat loss?

If you count on exercise to help you lose unwanted body fat (or keep it away), your ears may well perk up at any mention of “exercise this way and you’ll burn more fat.”

Last month, the mainstream media reported that several studies suggest that exercising in the morning before you’ve eaten breakfast burns more fat. This was nothing new to me…anyone who spends any time at all reading about the nutrition and training habits of those in the bodybuilding or fitness model world knows that many people share the conviction that you MUST do fasted exercise if you are serious about fat loss.

I bring this up because there is another group of scientists, fitness professionals and general fitness buffs who share the equal conviction that you MUST eat an appropriate snack pre-exercise (what appropriate means varies…the level of detail people get into about the optimal proportion of carbs to proteins to fats is enough to make your head spin). This point of view is often expressed with a subtle or even strident warning that failure to eat before exercise will cause some horrible outcome. Like, you’ll pass out or have a terrible workout or be completely unable to build or maintain muscle mass.

I, myself prefer morning exercise before I’ve eaten anything. I usually do cardio (walking, walk/running or biking) or yoga this way, although I’ve done heavy weight lifting workouts first thing in the morning on no food. This is partly because, although I am a big fan of breakfast, I don’t like eating the minute I get up. I feel better doing morning exercise on an empty stomach, and my workouts have never suffered. The one exception is if I’m doing a walk of more than 6 miles (like when I’m training for a half-marathon), then I eat a small bowl of shredded wheat cereal with milk and a sliced banana first. This came from listening to my body.

When I work out later in the day, I do find I need to have something in my stomach. Either a light snack right before, or the right spacing between two major meals so that I am not in heavy digestion mode, but not quite hungry for my next meal.

What I want YOU to know is that you can ignore anything anyone says about what you should or shouldn’t eat before you exercise. (One exception would be if you have blood sugar or other issues that have prompted your doctor to give you specific instructions in the food/exercise area. You do not want to mess around with that!)

So who do you listen to? To your body. This can take some experimentation. Most people who like to eat before exercise feel best with a small snack that includes some protein and complex carbohydrates. A fruit smoothie with yogurt or protein powder is one example. Cereal with milk and fruit is another. Some people like to include a little fat (but not too much). A little peanut butter on apple slices or whole wheat crackers is one classic pre-exercise snack.

People can get so bogged down in details about when to exercise and what to eat before and after they exercise that it can make it seem like they shouldn’t exercise unless they figure out what’s “right.”

No, no, no, no, no.

Unless you are a well-seasoned exerciser who is looking to really fine tune your routine to reach a specific performance or body composition goal, you are wasting valuable time and energy on small details like that. Here’s what you need to concern yourself with:

  1. Finding one or more activities that you enjoy doing on a regular basis. These should be activities that you are comfortable doing right now, but that also give you the opportunity to challenge yourself as you become more fit.
  2. Choosing a time of day to exercise that works for you. Many people choose the morning so they can fit their exercise into their day before other obligations intervene. You may agree…or you may do best exercising at lunch or after work or in the evening after dinner. The right time to exercise depends entirely on you.
  3. Being safe. If you have not exercised in a long time, and you have any ongoing health issues, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor first. Your doctor may suggest that you avoid certain activities, or suggest others that may be especially beneficial for you. 
  4. Starting on the right foot. If you are new to exercise, or to a specific activity, there is a “learning curve.” Don’t try too much, too soon, or your risk injury or burnout. You want to constantly challenge yourself, but you don’t want to push yourself so hard that you end up not being able to exercise.

To really benefit from exercise, you need to make it as regular a part of your life as brushing your teeth. If you accomplish that, then you are so far ahead of most of the people in this country. Seriously, you are a superstar! So who the heck cares if you exercise at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m., or if you ate first or not?