Here we go with a little cardio and fat burning 101.  In my upcoming posts, I’m providing you with the tools to not only understand fat burning and fat loss, but the skills to actually put the tools to best use!  If you really want to get results, take a moment to dive into the depths with me…. You’ll be glad you did!!

Let’s jump in to the facts! INTRODUCING:  THE FAT BURNING ZONE!


Training in the “fat burning zone” has been a go-to cardio exercise program guideline for decades. After all, if the main goal of your training is fat loss, why would you look any further?  Cardio machines even have charts outlining ideal exercise heart rates printed right on them!  If you are a beginner just starting to follow a regular exercise plan, it would be normal to go to the gym, start your cardio session on a machine following the guidelines posted in the chart and actually feel as though you’ve had a workout.  If you are a beginner or are getting back into a regular exercise routine, spending 20 or even 30 minutes at the moderate training intensity of the “fat burning zone” is appropriate for you.  The basement needs to be built before the walls and roof go on, right?  Let’s talk a bit about building a base of fitness before we get to some of the fancy stuff!


First of all, what does “moderate intensity” mean?  How is the “fat burning” zone defined?

For the lay-person (ie without the use of gas analyzers or other fancy testing equipment or methods), the “fat burning zone” or moderate intensity training is defined by heart rate.  The zone is said to exist at an equivalent of 60 to 70% of your age-predicated maximum heart rate (MHR).  Let’s start with finding that answer…

The formula for finding age-predicted maximum HR is 220-age.  To find 60-70% of that, multiply the first figure by .6 and .7.  So, for an average 40 year old getting started with an exercise program, here’s how it looks:

220-40 = 180 (the theoretical maximum heart rate)

180×0.6 and 180×0.7=108 to 126.  Here is the so-called “fat burning zone” for this person.

To this point, I’m assuming you’ll be exercising using a cardio machine with a heart rate monitor built in so you can read your HR!!  If you don’t have access to a monitor, you’ll just have to do it the old-fashioned way – by putting your index and third fingers (never the thumb, since it has a pulse of its own) just below your thumb joint at the base of your wrist. If you’re new to this, or have never been able to find your pulse, trust me – it is there!  Count to ten and multiply that number by six to get your heart rate. Practice finding your pulse so you don’t waste valuable time when it matters!  If it takes too long to find it, your HR will likely slow down while you’re taking it and give you an inaccurate measure.

Now that we’ve introduced the concept of intensity and you know how to use your heart rate to measure it…


How much time should the average person spend doing cardio to get results? 

In case you were wondering what volume of exercise is needed for health benefits (fat loss included), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) currently recommends most adults engage in…

  • moderate-intensity cardio exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week, for a total of 150 mins (or about 1000 calories) per week,
  • vigorous-intensity cardio exercise for at least 20 minutes per day for 3 or more days a week, for a total of about 75 minutes per week, or
  • a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise to equal the recommended  weekly energy expenditures

If you’re interested in more details about what the ACSM recommends for exercise prescription, read their position statement here:


Now, before you tell me your workouts aren’t working for fat loss, are you at least following these guidelines?  If not, start here.  We’ll be moving on to the really exciting stuff soon, I promise!  Following the ACSM guidelines… here is a simple cardio interval training workout for those of you just getting started.  For more advanced exercisers and fitness enthusiasts, your workouts are coming soon!  For simplicity, I’m not listing heart rates but rather intensities on a 1-10 scale with 1 being no intensity at all and 10 being a true maximum, all-out effort.  (If I used the 220-age formula above to determine the target HR zone for the workout, that means the zone would only be appropriate for people of the age I used in the formula!!)


The Workout:

Warming up, Intervals and Cool Down:

Start with a 5 minute warm up beginning at an easy pace, about a 5/10 intensity and building to a 6/10 intensity.  Consider 6/10 to be a “regular” cardio pace – one that you could sustain for 20 to 30 minutes straight.  6/10 on a scale of perceived exertion is supposed to equate to 60% of you’re the maximum HR we just talked about!

Intervals: Alternating “hard” and “easy” pace increments

For the next 3 minutes, increase your intensity so you are working harder than what you’d do for a regular cardio pace. For example, if you normally do 3.5 mph on the treadmill, then do 3.7 mph for 3 minutes.  This would be at a subjective 7/10 intensity level. Think about your normal intensity… and then go a little bit higher. This will allow you to exercise harder than you normally would be able to if you went for 30 minutes straight.  This 3 minutes is your “hard” interval.

After 3 minutes at a 7/10 intensity, bring your pace down to an easy 3/10 intensity for your recovery. Stay at this pace for 2 minutes.  This recovery will allow you to work extra hard when you bring it back up to the 7/10 intensity!

Follow this pattern of 3 minutes of hard, 2 minutes of easy for a total of 3 intervals.  Finish with a 5 minute cool down. This interval training workout will last a little over 20 minutes.


There you have it – the basics when it comes to cardio training and an introduction to the concept of “the fat burning zone”.  Are you ready for more?  Are you in the “been there, done that” category??  Read the next post Cardio and Fat Burning 2.0 to find out how to guarantee the biggest results from the time you put in to exercise and to get 2 awesome cardio workouts – without a machine in sight!!  I have soooo much more to tell you!!  DO NOT MISS THIS!!!