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Does Morning Exercise In A Fasting State Really Work Best For Fat Loss?

There’s long been an on-going debate on whether or not doing cardio in the morning while in a fasting state helps one to lose more body fat. To be fair there’s research supporting both sides of the argument, but I think it’s time to go a little deeper on the subject.

In short, the strategy may work well for some individuals, and not so well for others. As is the case with a lot of strategies related to fitness training and nutrition, it kinda depends on the individual.

In today’s post I’ll share with you some recent research that supports morning cardio in a fasted state, along with providing you my two cents on the big picture.

More after the jump…

Before we get into the latest research, let’s first look at the supporting arguments on both sides of this issue.

Those who support the idea of morning cardio in a fasted state claim it’s more efficient for fat burning due to the energy expenditure demands tapping into stored fat during aerobic activity.

In other words, you’ll burn more stored fat DURING exercise if the body isn’t relying so much on blood glucose from a recent meal.

There are also hormonal connections that tie into exercise done in a fasted state. I won’t bore you with the details, but they’re largely connected to insulin secretion and catecholamines produced by the adrenals.

Skeptics will cite that it’s really a matter of energy balance over a 24 hour period. They argue that people may be able to burn more fat during fasted exercise, but they’re likely to make up for it later in the day by over-consuming calories.

In essence, they argue that an increased appetite will typically make one eat more at later meals and negate post-workout fat burning.

So which side is right?

I’d say both sides are correct. Like I eluded to earlier, this isn’t a cut and dry case of a particular strategy working best for all individuals, all of the time. I’ll explain, but first let’s take a peek at what this latest research has found.

The following was taken from a release posted on Science Daily News.

In a study published online in the British Journal of Nutrition on January 24, academics sought to find out whether the known benefits of exercising after an overnight fast were undermined by an increased appetite and eating more food later in the day.

Researchers, led by Dr Emma Stevenson and PhD student Javier Gonzalez, asked twelve physically active male participants to perform a bout of treadmill exercise at 10am, either after they had eaten breakfast or in a fasted state having not eaten since the evening before.

Following the exercise all participants were given a chocolate milkshake recovery drink. Later in the day, participants were provided with a pasta lunch which they were asked to consume until they felt ‘comfortably full’. Their lunchtime consumption of energy and fat was assessed and calculated, taking into account the amount of energy and fat burned during the morning period.

The researchers discovered that those who had exercised in the morning did not consume additional calories or experience increased appetite during the day to compensate for their earlier activity.

They also found that those who had exercised in a fasted state burned almost 20% more fat compared to those who had consumed breakfast before their workout. This means that performing exercise on an empty stomach provides the most desirable outcome for fat loss.

Javier Gonzalez, who is currently undertaking a PhD in Exercise and Metabolism, said:

“Our results show that exercise does not increase your appetite, hunger or food consumption later in the day and to get the most out of your session it may be optimal to perform this after an overnight fast.”

Dr Emma Stevenson, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Nutrition and Associate Director of Northumbria University’s Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre, added:

“This research is very important in helping to provide practical guidelines relating to food intake to individuals who are exercising to maximise fat mass loss. It must be highlighted that this is a short-term study and we can only speculate on the longer term outcomes of such nutritional practices.” Go to story.

Alright, there’s a lot about this research study that we could pick apart and scrutinize. The chocolate milkshake recovery drink, the pasta lunch, the small test group (12 people), etc.

There are also looming questions over the age of the test group, what kind of exercise was performed, for how long, at what intensity, etc?

Instead of picking this study apart, let’s just look at some of the real world practical implications.

In full disclosure I used to be highly suspect of claims that fasted cardio would be optimal for fat loss, but in lieu of emerging research on intermittent fasting (IF) strategies, I’ve become far more open-minded.

Here’s what I can share with you based on experience and observation.

There are several factors which play into whether or not the fasted cardio approach would be an effective and practical strategy.

- Age of exerciser
- Existing dietary and nutrition habits
- Type of exercise performed
- Post-workout nutrition
- Experience with exercise
- Sleep quality and other lifestyle factors

Without extensively breaking down each factor, let me give you a brief overview.

If you are new to exercise, just starting out with significant dietary changes, in general out of shape and dealing with a down regulated metabolism, I would NOT recommend this strategy.

Personally, I’ve found much better results with personal training clients when they start with more of a supportive nutrition diet (consuming 4-6 small meals per day). Consuming a small piece of fruit or a whey protein drink prior to exercise, being a better strategy than going in fasted.

Trying to exercise while in a fasted state for a beginner has an increased likelihood of becoming light-headed, dizzy, and feeling nauseous. Not to mention, that yes I believe they will be more likely to over-consume calories later in the day.

In essence, they haven’t conditioned their body for things like gluconeogenesis, that can fuel activity in the absence of readily available blood glucose. Simply put, training in a fasted state ain’t for beginners.

If you’ve been following a poor diet and not exercising much, chances are there’s going to be insulin sensitivity issues, blood sugar imbalances, possible adrenal weakness, and other factors that would make fasted exercise difficult to say the least.

This kind of goes hand in hand with intermittent fasting strategies for fat loss. I think it can be highly effective and worthy of experimentation, but not until you’ve established a foundation with your nutrition and fitness.

Stick with following a supportive nutrition diet in the beginning to stabilize blood sugar levels, improve insulin sensitivity, and re-establish metabolic rate.

In other words, if you’ve been following a poor diet and not exercising, look to go with the 4-6 small meals per day approach and exercise at a time that best fits with your schedule.

Start with the basics and make small progressive changes, instead of major overhauls. Going from a crappy diet and being sedentary to all of a sudden doing morning cardio in a fasted state, not only will be difficult from a physiological standpoint, it’s also going to increase the likelihood of falling off the wagon.

However, if you wanted to do some light aerobic activity (such as walking), for 30 minutes or so first thing in the morning before breakfast, that could actually be beneficial in the beginning. I just wouldn’t recommend trying to do higher intensity cardio.

Save the higher intensity cardio in a fasted state for later down the line when you’re in better conditioning and have more established healthy nutrition habits. The same thing goes for intermittent fasting strategies. In my opinion these two go hand in hand.

There’s enough research to show, confirmed from personal observation and experience, that morning cardio in fasted state can be highly effective for individuals using intermittent fasting strategies. Once again, if they’re ready for it.

I’ve been extremely interested with intermittent fasting and the relating exercise implications as the benefits may be geared more towards middle age and older adults (my niche specialty). A lot of this has to do with the hormonal shifts associated with aging.

Let’s face it, you can get away with a lot more variability in your diet and with exercise when you’re younger due to hormonal advantages. Drastically reducing calories and doing a ton of cardio might work just fine when you’re in your 20′s and early 30′s, but not so much thereafter.

My advice is this…if you want to experiment with morning exercise in a fasted state, start with low intensity aerobic activity like walking first. If you want to progress towards doing higher intensity cardio in a fasted state, you’ll need to condition your body for it.

Yes, that means developing an aerobic base of conditioning, stabilizing blood sugar levels, improving insulin sensitivity, and increasing metabolic rate.

The recipe for doing all of that?

Follow a supportive nutrition diet, perform resistance based exercise 2-3 times per week, and do aerobic activity for 30 minutes or so 3-5 times per week.

Build your foundation first.

If you’d like to share your experiences with fasted state exercise, please feel free to leave your comments below. This is an open forum blog.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides fitness consulting in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation. See our success stories from numerous Lowcountry residents then sign up for a no-obligations consultation today.

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Category: Fat Loss.