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Smart Fitness: Boost Your Calorie Burn

You can devote only so many minutes a day to physical activity, yet there are so many calories to be burned.

How can you get the absolute best calorie-burning effects from your exercise time? Start by knowing the basics of calorie control.

Not rocket science

"To lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you take in. That's what it all comes down to," explains Julie Funderburk, M.S., a clinical exercise physiologist in Baltimore. "Some people try to manage their weight through diet alone, but studies show the most effective way is through a combination of both diet and exercise."

Certain forms of physical activity are better than others at burning calories while you're exercising. Others also step up the burn after exercise by increasing the rate of your resting metabolism. This refers to the normal physical processes that use calories while you're lying on the couch or trimming your nails. Basically, your body always burns fuel even while the engine is on idle, so the trick is to increase the idle rate.

Be sure to get approval from your health care provider before starting any new exercise program. Then, try these tips to boost your calorie burn.

Step up the pace

Consider adding higher-intensity intervals to your workout, such as jogging for short stretches during your usual brisk walk. Or, stick to walking but increase the pace or include a few steep hills or sets of stairs.

"Short bursts of high-intensity exercise increase the expenditure of calories," Funderburk says.

Build up to an aerobic workout

This is exercise that really gets the heart and lungs pumping and provides heart-healthy benefits.

"With aerobic activity, you get that immediate calorie burn, and then you also slightly raise your metabolism for anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours afterward, depending on the intensity and duration of exercise," Funderburk says.

Add strength training

The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn while at rest, day in and day out.

"Strength training and aerobic activity go hand in hand," Funderburk says. "Building more muscle mass will help you raise your resting metabolism."

You can build muscle by lifting weights or engaging in resistance training. You can, for example, use elastic bands or do push-ups, crunches, or pull-ups.

Avoid fasting

Believe it or not, eating too few calories—fewer than 1,000 calories a day—can defeat your purpose. It saps your energy and puts your body into starvation mode, where your body burns calories more slowly in order to hold onto its store of energy. You may see a similar effect from skipping breakfast or otherwise going for long periods without eating. Many experts recommend eating smaller, more frequent meals.

Choose the right foods

Try eating more high-protein foods, such as low-fat yogurt or skinless chicken, and more whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables. Your body burns more calories when digesting these foods than while digesting processed carbohydrates, such as pasta or white bread. Other foods that may temporarily rev up the metabolism include milk, green tea, coffee, and spicy foods. And be sure to limit high-calorie, high-fat foods.

But when it comes to burning the calories you've added, the best advice is to engage in regular physical activity, Funderburk says.

"Find an exercise routine you enjoy so you can stick with it for the rest of your life," she says. "If you don't have much time, try to get in little bits of activity throughout the day. Go for a short walk in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening. Whatever you do, keep moving. The more you're moving, the more calories you're burning."