With so many "get fit quick" schemes out there, it can be hard to tell the difference between the hype and the truth. We spoke with Nicole Nichols, sparkpeople.com's resident fitness expert and creator of SparkPeople: 28 Day Boot Camp DVD (she was also recently selected by the American Council on Exercise and Life Fitness as America's Top Personal Trainer to Watch) about some of your most - pardon the pun - burning fat-burning questions.
1. An empty stomach doesn't equal a bigger fat burn. If you exercise first thing in the morning, you've probably wondered if eating before your workout will help or hinder your results. The answer, according to Nichols, is to do what works best for you. "Some people exercise just fine in the morning without eating first," she notes. "If you can keep up the intensity for a strong workout and not feel sick or lightheaded, then go for it." But if you do opt to nosh before your morning workout, make it a fast-digesting carb instead of a heavy protein bar or shake, which can sit in your stomach and may lead to cramping.
2. Circuit training is effective - if you do it right. Not every circuit workout (when you move from one exercise to the next without much rest) is a major calorie burner, says Nichols. For example, if the majority of your workout consists of isolation moves like biceps curls and crunches, you won't burn as many calories as you would if you included compound exercises like squats and presses, or movements that utilize both the upper and lower body at the same time. Incorporate walking lunges with biceps curls, or squats with shoulder presses into your next circuit for a bigger burn. "The more muscles you use, the more likely you are to get a calorie burn that rivals a traditional cardio session," she explains.
3. A great workout at home IS possible! A mere $60 investment can get you a bona fide in-home starter gym. Nichols suggests you invest your cash in a stability ball, a set of dumbbells and a jump rope to start. But you already own the best piece of fitness equipment: your body. "Plyometric and explosive cardio movements like jumping, outdoor running and sprints don't require anything more than a good pair of shoes," she points out.
4. Speaking of plyo: it's not for everyone. These explosive, high-intensity movements are on everyone's lips as the next big thing in calorie-burning workouts, but beginners should start slow when it comes to jumps and bounds. "These athletic movements really target your fast-twitch muscles, coordination and agility, so you're training your body in an entirely new way," she cautions, so if you don't have a solid cardiovascular base, experience joint issues or have been warned to limit high-intensity exercise, steer clear until your fitness level increases. However, when you are ready to try it, you won't be disappointed. "Challenging workouts (like plyo) almost always equal results - and more calories burned," Nichols explains.
5. Being long in the tooth doesn't mean you have to be wide in the waist. "There's no doubt that getting older changes your body and your appearance," admits Nichols. Factors such as a natural decline in your maximum heart rate and reductions in muscle mass may make it more difficult to keep your hard-earned body, but that doesn't mean all is lost. "Much of the physical decline we associate with aging may have more to do with increased inactivity than with aging itself," Nichols notes, adding that strength training is especially important as it can help lessen the loss of muscle that can accompany hormone fluctuations. She recommends lifting to muscle fatigue within eight to 12 reps per set, up to three times per week to "help prevent middle-age spread."