Most often, when people begin an exercise program, their reasons for doing so almost always include the goal, 'to lose weight'. They aren't really wanting to lose weight though, they are wanting to lose body fat which is known as adipose tissue.
The human body needs a certain amount of body fat. It is packed in and around our bodies in specific areas (usually determined by genetics) for a myriad of reasons such as insulation, protection (shock absorption) and as a stored fuel source. Women tend to store their body fat in areas around their hips, buns and thighs, where guys tend to pack on the adipose around their midsections, although there are plenty of exceptions to this!
As I said previously, we need adipose tissue to survive and live healthy lives, as having too little body fat can be nearly as detrimental as having too much. In a general sense, men should aim for around 8-15% body fat percentage, wheras women should be closer to the 20-25% range. Anything above 25% for men, and 30% for women is deemed "obese".
It is important to try and stay in these body fat percentage ranges because research has shown that people that can maintain healthy body fat percentages have a decreased risk for things such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, etc. Oh, and I wouldn't worry too much about dropping too low on the body fat scale, as it is quite difficult to do unless you are an olympic athlete training for hours every day, or have an eating disorder that needs to be discussed with the proper medical authorities.
Back to the topic. I am going to discuss a few topics regarding 'fat' below that should help clear the air on some things that some people have either heard or wondered about.
1. How do I calculate my body fat percentage?
There are very expensive and complicated systems that will calculate your body fat based on xrays, and electrical impedance, etc. or you could try at-home methods, its up to you. Keep in mind that calculating your body by using one of those scales where you step on it and it registers your body fat percentage is quite inaccurate.
I recommend buying a simple body fat caliper and looking online for different websites that will calculate your body fat by using said caliper to pinch some skin folds at different spots on your body and plugging the numbers into a formula. Yes, these can also be somewhat inaccurate, but it should at least give you a rough idea and will do a good job ball-parking where your body fat percentage is so that you can aim to lower it if need be.
2. Muscle burns fat
Let me be perfectly clear here. When your body "loses weight", it loses not only body fat, but muscle mass as well. If it is starved for calories/energy, it will pull energy from any type of stored energy you have in your body, so don't think that your muscles won't be depleted as well. That is why it is critical to have a balanced exercise program consisting of cardiovascular and resistance training to not only improve your circulatory system, but to build your muscles as well. That way, as your muscles build, your 'resting metabolic rate' will increase as well.
Your resting metabolic rate is the amount of energy you require to survive at any time of the day. This includes thinking, breathing, digesting food, talking, etc. It also means that after a good resistance workout, your muscles are in "construction mode" rebuilding to be leaner, faster, stronger for next time which burns calories like crazy! Simple enough, the more muscle you have (men and women), the more calories you will be burning at all times, even when sleeping!
3. Dietary fat
Continuing on from #2, not only is muscle important, but the way you eat and strategize your diet is vital as well. Remember back to your high school days in science class when you learned about 'fat'. Fat is simply the term used for certain things based on their chemical makeup. Unfortunately the name 'fat' has been victimized over the years based on the notion that fat makes us fat, which is only partially true.
Dietary fat is 1 of 3 macronutrients that we consume in our diets. Fat has 9 calories per gram, carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, and proteins have 4 calories per gram. There are certain individuals that think, "Well, makes sense, fat is the most calorie dense, if I don't eat fat, I won't get fat!" This is the furthest thing from the truth! Adipose tissue in our bodies is storage of excess calories, not excess fat, so if you consume too many carbohydrates or too much protein, guess what, that will become body fat too! Don't believe me? Go and drink a 6-pack of beer a night and watch how fast that "beer-belly" grows! There is not a drop of fat in beer whatsoever! Not only that, pops and soft drinks don't have fat either, but they are now being attributed to the growing obesity epidemic.
I could go on all day, but we have further matters to discuss, but simply remember that yes, fat is more calorie dense than carbohydrates or proteins, which means that you should eat less of it, but don't cut it from your diet completely, because chances are, it is being replaced by more useless things like sugar! Dieticians usually recommend that at least 20-30% of your daily caloric intake should come from healthy fat sources!
4. Can I spot-reduce my body fat?
We have all seen the commercials promising to do 10 minutes of crunches on the "ab-destroyer 2000" and you will get a perfect 6-pack, wrong! As much as we would like to think that doing squats will eliminate body fat from our legs more than the rest of our body, or doing crunches will reveal that 6-pack, we have to take a better approach.
Truth of the matter is, when our bodies burn calories, and therefore, stored body fat, it is taken from stores throughout our bodies quite evenly. Again, women tend to have more storage around hips, thighs and buns and guys tend to store around their midsections more (in a general sense) so these 'problem areas' will tend to take longer to deplete, but keep at it, and you can get there.
The secret is a combination of a healthy diet (healthy fats, lean proteins, whole-grain carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables), and an exercise program that combines both cardiovascular and resistance exercise. Consistency with both of these variables and you will cut your body fat down to a healthy range!
5. I can never lose weight, I have a slow metabolism!
This may be hard for some of you to understand, or believe. Similar to when your body gains muscle mass, and your resting metabolic rate increases, research has shown that your resting metabolic rate actually increases the fatter you become. That means, the more body fat that you pack on, the more calories your body is actually burning at any given time...quickening your metabolism, not slowing it down!
Truth of the matter is, body fat increases when your caloric intake (the amount you eat) is more than your caloric expenditure, more or less. As people become heavier, they do in fact increase their resting metabolic rate, but tend to also eat more as well as they become hungrier and hungrier.
6. Weight gain/loss is a quick process
Truth is, losing weight and gaining weight are both actually a pretty slow process. It requires anywhere from 2500-3500 calories to gain a pound of body fat (and vice versa to lose). Many people who have a little dessert here or there make the comment, "Ugh, I feel fatter already!" Some may even weigh themselves after a big meal only to realize that they have gained a few pounds. Keep in mind that what we consume has weight to it as well and most of the 'quick weight' you put on after a meal is due to fluids.
Similarly, don't weight yourself immediately after a workout to think that you have lost a few pounds as that is almost entirely water weight that you lost through sweat that you will gain back as soon as you drink some water.
A consistent, healthy plan over an extended period of time is the best way to witness safe, healthy weight loss.