Losing weight is the same as losing fat right? Hint: no it’s not!

Fat loss vs. Weight Loss

When people have a few pounds to lose, we often say we want to “lose weight”.

My guess (and this is 100% a guess BTW), is that phrase came from “weighing” in on a scale to record our “weight”.  If the number is too high we want to lose some of that “weight”.

But there is a difference in losing weight and losing fat.  And trust me, it’s the latter you want to lose more of, not the former.

What are we really losing when we lose “weight”?

When we lose weight  the unfortunate reality is that we don’t just lose fat.  The body is a self preserving mechanism that is super efficient at storing fat to keep us alive during times of famine.

So to preserve our fat stores in times of a perceived famine, we lose glycogen (sugars and carbohydrates that are stored in the liver and muscles), water, some fat, and regrettably lean muscle tissue too.

Keep in mind that lean tissue such as muscle, is what keeps our metabolisms running at a high level.  The more we lose of it….the slower our metabolisms become.

In fact, did you know that we start to lose approximately 1/2 pound of lean muscle tissue per decade (known as sarcopenia) as early as our late 20’s early 30’s if we don’t take steps to protect it!

So if we’re already losing muscle naturally as we age AND we are taking measures such as extreme calorie restriction and doing a bunch of steady state cardio to lose fat, you can see how we end up doubling down on the muscle wasting while trying to lose fat!!

What role does exercise play in all of this?

Ok, so this is where it can be super confusing for some people…and I’m hoping I can help clear this up for you!

You’ve probably heard that to stay healthy, we need to commit to exercising the following intensities:

  • 30-60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise at least 5 days a week (which can be broken into bouts of 10 minutes throughout the day BTW).
  • 20-60 minutes of high intensity exercise on 3 days of the week
  • Strength training for all major muscle groups 2-3 days a week

(As a side note: these recommendations are not just for fat loss.  These recommendations are also for heart health, cancer prevention, preventing/controlling diabetes, bone health, mental health such as depression…just to name a few).

The problem is…most people choose to only workout at a moderate intensity while ignoring the high intensity and strength training categories when trying to lose fat!

For years and years, people (myself included), thought and still do think, that steady state cardio such as running on the treadmill or slugging away at a steady state on any cardio machine is the best way to burn calories and lose fat.

The truth of the matter is while it’s DEFINITELY better than sitting on the sofa and doing nothing for sure…however…. long term it will become less effective for fat loss and will eventually contribute to muscle loss.

You’re probably wondering why steady state cardio can lead to muscle loss in the first place.

You can blame the hormone cortisol.

As we trudge along for an hour or more at a moderate steady state, our cortisol levels rise in order to ensure we have enough glucose in our muscles to prevent a drop in blood sugar.

When the body runs low on muscle glycogen and glucose, cortisol signals our bodies to use protein  (muscle) as an alternative fuel source during exercise.

Cortisol breaks down muscle tissue and sends the amino acids to your liver.

Here, your liver turns those amino acids into glucose by a process called gluconeogenesis.

Soooo, cortisol is essentially stealing from your muscles to keep your blood sugar up.

Oh and high cortisol levels can redistribute the fat from your legs, hips and booty to your belly.

This ain’t good peeps!

This is where high intensity and strength training come in to save the day and why we NEED to mix up our training with moderate and high intensity exercise along with progressive strength training.

High intensity interval training creates a different response within the body by releasing lower levels of cortisol into the bloodstream thereby reducing the effect of muscle wasting because it can only be tolerated in shorter bouts.  We know that lower amounts of cortisol leads to less muscle wasting.

Strength training of course helps to counteract the natural loss of that lean muscle tissue AND it increases production of testosterone and growth hormone. Growth hormone and testosterone help counteract the negative effects cortisol has on muscle breakdown!!!


(If you’re a science geek like I am, you can check out some scientific literature here and here to learn more about cortisol and doing only steady state cardio for fat loss).

Can you see now why it is so incredibly important to NOT just hit the cardio machines for an hour at a moderate steady state pace when it comes to fat loss?  

By the way, to be clear, I’m not talking about leisure walking here. Leisure walking is incredible for everyone and we all should be doing it as much as possible!!

Leisure walking and other activities such as yoga, gardening, etc. do not facilitate the cortisol response that moderate intensity steady state cardio does and can actually help with recovery from a tough workout as well as help with insulin levels and stress.

It’s all about balance!

How can we tell if we are working out at moderate intensity or high intensity?

It’s all about training in specific heart rate zones.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

There are two basic ways to measure exercise intensity:

  • How you feel. Exercise intensity is a subjective measure of how hard physical activity feels to you while you’re doing it — your perceived exertion. Your perceived level of exertion may be different from what someone else feels doing the same exercise. For example, what feels to you like a hard run can feel like an easy workout to someone who’s more fit.
  • Your heart rate. Your heart rate offers a more objective look at exercise intensity. In general, the higher your heart rate during physical activity, the higher the exercise intensity.

To figure out where your general moderate heart rate zone is, which is 50-70% of your maximum heart rate you just need to do a little bit of math.

The equation is 220 – age= Max heart rate.  Take that number X .5 and .7 and that will give you your moderate intensity range.

To calculate the high intensity heart rate range which is working at 70-85% of your maximum heart rate.

That looks like 220-age = Max heart rate.  Take that number X .7 and .85.

We’ll use my age as an example.

I’m 53 so I take 220-53 =167.  That’s my max heart rate.  I then take 167 X .5 which = 83.5 (we’ll call it 84), and then multiply 167 X .7 =117.

So my moderate intensity heart rate range would be between 84-117 beats per minute and my high intensity heart rate range is 117-142 beats per minute.

If you wear a fitness tracker of any sort, most of them will tell you in real time where your heart rate is.

If you don’t have a tracker, just count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply X 6.

Having this knowledge enables you to make adjustments to your workouts if you’re working too hard or not working hard enough.

(It goes without saying that if you’ve been sedentary or just beginning an exercise routine, you want to work up to the recommended guidelines safely!)

Now that we know all of this….how do we put it into an actual plan?

Ok, so for example, in my #WalkHike&LiftToLose program, which is a 10 week high intensity (NO RUNNING OR JUMPING) fat loss program, I lay it all out for you so you know you’re getting the EXACT blueprint of what you should be doing to facilitate fat loss (not weight loss), while preserving precious muscle tissue.

Here’s an example of what a week might look like:

Day 1:  Treadhike a 40 minute or less high intensity interval treadmill hike (or other cardio machine)

Day 2:  Total body strength training circuit less than 40 minutes long

Day 3: Off (leisure walking, yoga, tai chi, etc. recommended)

Day 4:  Total body strength training circuit less than 40 minutes long

Day 5:Treadhike a 40 minute or less high intensity interval treadmill hike (or other cardio machine)

Day 6:  Off (leisure walking, yoga, tai chi, etc. recommended)

Day 7:  Combo workout of treadhike and total body strength training circuit

As you can see by the example above, all your bases are covered with recommended cardio and strength training intensities…..so you will lose fat while preserving (and maybe even gaining) some precious muscle!!

The entire workout can be completed in approximately 15 to 40 minutes depending on how many rounds of the strength training you choose to do.

If you’re new to strength training, I recommend having 5#, 8# and 10# dumbbells, using the heaviest that you can WITHOUT sacrificing good form!

If you’ve been strength training for awhile, a range of 10#-25# dumbbells is recommended depending on your strength.

A good rule of thumb to follow to know if you’re using the correct weight for any given exercise is that the final 2-3 reps should be a CHALLENGE to complete with good form.

Having said that….I would rather you start a little lighter the first time or two that you do the workout so you can get a feel for what the workout is all about and how your body is going to respond to it.

I am planning on releasing the #WalkHikeAndLiftToLose program before the end of the year (waiting for my knee to heal so I can film the exercises that go with the program), and for everyone that’s on my list…they’ll get it at a $20 discount that won’t be offered to the public!

You can sign up to be on the wait list HERE so you won’t miss out on the chance to grab it when it comes out!

So if you want to lose fat and not weight….you gotta train smart!  No long steady state cardio bouts…it’s all about preserving lean muscle mass and training in the proper heart rate zones!


2 thoughts on “Losing weight is the same as losing fat right? Hint: no it’s not!

  1. Thanks for sharing this — I’ve recently switched over to more of a HIIT strength training/cardio program and was still feeling unsure since I come from a “cardio till you die” background. I’ve seen dramatic changes in my body since moving to more muscle building focus and I have to say, I don’t care so much now about the scale anymore. I am excited by the shape my body is taking and the energy I have gained.


    • Excellent job girl!!!! I know EXACTLY how you feel abou the “cardio til you die” mindset..GAH!!! I mistakenly always believed that running and hours upon hours of cardio was the only way to lose weight and get in shape. Now, I’m like you and much prefer HIIT, kettlebell training, and of course strength training. Annnd, we now have the science to back those choices up!!! High fives to you….so happy you’re seeing great results and you’re not a prisoner to the scale!!!!! Yesssss!!

      Liked by 1 person

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