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Fat burn vs Cardio — What's the difference?

Updated on May 20, 2017
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Shannon is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada. She is currently completing her degree in Professional Writing and Communication.

Lace up those shoes, let's workout!
Lace up those shoes, let's workout! | Source

Fat burn vs Cardio: The Rivalry

So, you've gotten yourself to the gym. Shoes laced, water bottle in hand, tunes ready to go. You hop onto a treadmill, glance down, andfind yourself a little befuddled. Cardio? Fat burn? Maximum heart rate? Exasperated, you wonder: What should I be doing? What's the best workout for my body and my fitness goals?

Well, here's a little insight into how the body handles exercise and what your workout options are.

Mountain climbers - a popular HIIT workout exercise
Mountain climbers - a popular HIIT workout exercise | Source

What Exercise Does To The Body

When you exercise, your body uses energy to keep you moving. This energy is drawn from two places: fat stores and glycogen. Glycogen is just a fancier word for the stores of glucose in your muscles and liver.

It has been discovered that during lower intensity exercise (where your heart rate is between 50-70% of its maximum), more fat is burned than glycogen. In fact, the burn ratio is 60% fat, 40% glycogen.

During higher intensity exercise (pushing your heart rate to 70-90% of its max.), your body pulls more energy from glycogen. For high intensity cardio, the burn rates are 35% fat and 65% glycogen.

So, wait a minute. Lower intensity exercise burns more fat? Well, technically it does, but hold on. That's only half the story.

Cardio machines galore!
Cardio machines galore! | Source

How Many Calories Will I Burn?

Now we have to start talking about calories. Calories are the bottom line when it comes to figuring out just how much you're burning and from where. Yes, at a lower intensity, your body does burn more calories from fat. But it burns far fewer calories overall than it does during higher intensity exercise.

Think of it this way: if you work out at a lower intensity for an hour and burn 350 calories, 210 are from fat and 140 are from glycogen. However, if you work out at a higher rate of intensity for that same length of time, you may burn closer to 700 calories, 245 of which would be from fat and 455 from glycogen. With higher intensity exercise you burn more calories and more fat.

The Sought-After Cardio Afterburn Effect

It's also worth mentioning the afterburn effect that comes into play after high intensity exercise. Essentially, it's calories your body continues to burn after you've stopped exercising. This occurs due to EPOC Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption. The harder your body works during exercise, the more oxygen it must later restore. That equals more calories burned, even after you're done your workout.

Workout variation is vital
Workout variation is vital | Source

Is High Intensity Cardio Really Better?

Well, that depends. You've got the facts—it's up to you to decide what's best for you and your body.

Remember that varying your exercise routine can be highly beneficial. Changing up your workouts is an important element of a healthy lifestyle. By varying your workouts, you'll build different muscle groups, help prevent overuse injuries and keep your body and brain engaged and motivated.

Keep active and keep healthy!


Domonell, Kristen. EPOC: The Secret to Faster Fat Loss?

Perry, Marc. The Fat Burning Zone Myth: Don't Be Fooled.

Wadyka, Sally. 7 Reasons to Switch Up Your Workout.


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