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What Factors Affect Fat Use During Exercise?

author image Mandy Ross
Melissa Ross began writing professionally in 2009, with work appearing in various online publications. She has been an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer since 2006. Ross holds a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and a Master of Science in kinesiology from California State University, Fullerton.
What Factors Affect Fat Use During Exercise?
Teens burning excess fat on treadmills. Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Depending on numerous factors, your body utilizes varying ratios of fat, carbohydrates and protein for energy during exercise. Burning more fat than other fuels may seem beneficial for individuals who hope for weight loss. However, there are many factors that affect how your body processes fat during exercise.

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Exercise Intensity

Exercise intensity affects energy production more than any other variable. For example, physical activities performed at or below 50 percent of your maximum effort use greater amounts of fat than carbohydrates as fuel. The crossover concept, or switching from fat usage to carbohydrate usage, occurs as exercise intensity increases. For instance, carbohydrates may provide up to 80 percent of your energy when you exercise at 70 to 80 percent of your maximum ability.

Exercise Duration

Long duration exercise, lasting over one hour, can deplete stored carbohydrates within your body. As a result, fat becomes your main source of energy regardless of your exercise intensity. As you can imagine, your body cannot use carbohydrates if none are available. Carbohydrate depletion and subsequent reliance on fat for energy minimizes your exercise performance during long endurance activities. Endurance athletes, such as marathon runners, ingest carbohydrates throughout a race in hopes of maintaining carbohydrate availability and peak performance.

Training Experience

Training improves your fat burning ability during exercise. For instance, after two months of weekly endurance exercise, your body burns greater levels of fat per minute than before training. In fact, elite athletes continue to burn fat after exercising and during rest. Carbohydrate sparing, or an increased reliance on fat as energy, supports sports performance and improves endurance during long-duration activities.

Considerations for Weight Loss

Weight loss requires a caloric deficit, or burning more calories than you take in, regardless of where the energy comes from. Therefore, overall calorie expenditure becomes more important for fat loss than the source of calories expended. Low-intensity exercise burns fewer calories per minute than high-intensity exercise and consequently may be less beneficial for weight loss. For example, a 180-pound person burns 68 calories while walking 4 mph for 10 minutes and 136 calories while running 6 mph for 10 minutes. Although the usage ratio of fat to carbohydrate is greater during the walk, the person burns almost two times as many calories during a run in the same time span. As always, consult a doctor before you start an exercise program.

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