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Is that 'fat-burning zone' on cardio machines accurate?

Posted by Elizabeth Comeau  May 22, 2013 07:00 AM

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RyanHealy100.jpgRyan Healy is a personal trainer for the Lynch/van Otterloo (LVO) YMCA in Marblehead. She is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA, and earned her BS in Exercise Sports Science from Elon University. Find more posts by her in conjunction with the LVO YMCA at She can be reached at

This week, Healy answers a reader question about that 'fat-burning' zone on most cardio equipment you see in gyms.

Q. If my goal is weight loss, should I be using the fat burning mode on the cardio machines when I workout?

A. Great question! The fat burning zones that are listed on the cardio machines are a bit misleading. Let me explain why.

When working in this zone, you’re working aerobically, meaning you’re not breathless, and you’re maintaining an effort level that’s sustainable for at least two minutes or more. This is typically a slow or moderate pace for most people. At this intensity, the fuel source that contributes the most to this type of activity is fat, which is why it’s named the fat burning zone.

When you work beyond this intensity, performing activities such as sprints or resistance training, the primary fuel source becomes carbohydrates.

The problem with only training in the fat burning zone is that you burn fewer total calories, from both of these fuel sources.

To maximize overall calorie burn, aim for a higher intensity, which is often listed as the cardio zone on machines, or perform high intensity intervals which will have you burning more calories up to 24 hours after your sweat session!

Staying fit is an important part of staying healthy. This blog will offer exercise tips from experts as well as share the personal journeys of Globe staff members committed to fitness. No matter your age or energy level, we invite you to join in and share your own story. How do you find time to work out? What are your daily challenges? Let us know and read along -- and together, we can all get moving.


Elizabeth Comeau is a social media marketing manager at She will be blogging about her personal fitness journey and using a device called a FitBit to track her weekly goals and progress (see below). Follow her journey and share your own. Read more about Elizabeth and this blog.

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