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Study Puts a Damper on Belief That Workouts Turn Us Into Daylong Fat Burners

May 28, 2009 -- Many of us get through a tough workout by thinking about the fat burning that will occur during the exercise and for the next 24 hours or so.

After all, that's the widely held belief: Regular workouts turn us into extraordinary fat burners.

Not so, at least not for moderate-intensity exercisers, according to Edward Melanson, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, Denver, who presented his research at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Seattle. The study is published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews.

''Moderate duration exercise of an hour or less has little impact on 24-hour fat oxidation," Melanson concludes.

Most studies looking at the fat burning associated with exercise have been short-term studies -- spanning just a couple of hours -- that looked at people who hadn't eaten, he says. Melanson's team evaluated people in a more true-to-life scenario, following them over a 24-hour period during which they exercised and ate or did no exercise and ate.

"It's not that exercise doesn’t burn fat," Melanson says. "It's just that we replace the calories."

''Exercise increases the capacity to burn more fat," he says. But if you replace those calories, that is lost."

The findings shouldn't discourage people from exercise, Melanson says, but rather inspire them to become more realistic about "calories in, calories out" -- and to expend more than they take in if they are trying to lose weight and body fat.

Exercise and Fat Burning

Melanson's team evaluated fat burning in 10 lean, endurance-trained participants, 10 lean but untrained paeople, and eight untrained and obese people during exercise conditions and sedentary conditions.

Participants were fed a diet that was 20% fat, 65% carbs, and 15% protein for three days before each session and on the day they exercised or did not exercise. On the exercise day, participants rode a stationary bike at a moderate intensity for one hour, burning about 400 calories.

When Melanson's team measured calorie expenditures, they were higher in each group when they exercised compared to when they did not, not surprisingly.

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