Can EPOC lead to EPIC fat loss?

                                                         It's time to unleash the power of EPOC!

                                                        It's time to unleash the power of EPOC!

What would you say if I told you that you could burn a lot more calories than you currently are, and without having to increase your time spent exercising? What if I told you there is a way to turn your body into a metabolic furnace, capable of boiling away extra calories while you‘re working at your desk? What if I told you I could do all that for you and cut your time spent exercising? Would you be interested? Then read on to learn how EPOC can lead to epic fat loss.  

First off, no, EPOC is not a new app that allows you to put everything from your pocket onto your phone—good guess. EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, is the term we use in exercise physiology to describe the extra oxygen, above resting levels, that is consumed after a physical activity has ceased. Popular culture refers to this term as the exercise “afterburn.” It is well understood in science that for every liter of oxygen you consume, you burn approximately five calories. Therefore, if we measure the oxygen you consume after exercise and subtract the resting level consumption, we can calculate the EPOC and estimate the calories that you burn long after exercise has ended. This provides us with a tool we can use to examine the “afterburn” differences between various modes, lengths, and intensities of exercise.  

Why should you care about EPOC?

Think about this parallel: Money is useful, and acquiring money passively through interest, dividends, and growth is even better, because you aren’t trading your time for its acquisition. Burning calories is useful if your goal is to lose fat. Burning extra calories passively even when you’re not exercising is even better, because you aren’t trading your time for the increased burn. This is the basic idea behind much of fitness these days. Many products and services claim to help you burn fat passively so you aren’t trading so much time for the payoff of fat loss. Learning the details behind some of these theories can help you distinguish reality from fantasy.

What influences EPOC?

There are three primary factors that influence increased oxygen consumption after a physical activity has ended: duration, intensity, and intermittent patterning.

First, as duration increases, EPOC increases. The longer one engages in an activity at a given work load, the larger the caloric burn will be after exercise has ended. Studies have shown an increase from 33 calories to 165 calories in afterburn consumption when subjects exercised at 70 percent of their max VO2 for 30 and 60 minutes, respectively. Thus, go longer and have a larger afterburn.  

Second, as intensity increases, EPOC increases. For two exercise sessions that are equivalent in caloric expenditure, the more intense session (even if shorter in duration but resulting in a similar overall workload) will result in the larger EPOC. If we each run for an equivalent distance, but you run much faster than I do, you will have a larger afterburn. For example, if two 70-kg men run a mile, one in 4.5 minutes and the other in 8.5 minutes, they’ll both consume roughly the same number of calories. However, the faster runner will have a larger EPOC and will consume more calories overall. 

Third, breaking one longer duration exercise session into two or more smaller sessions, or alternating intensities within an exercise session, can increase the EPOC. For example, rather than running at 70 percent of VO2 for 30 minutes, perform three 10-minute runs at 70 percent. The accumulated EPOC would be higher in the latter broken-apart run. Another example would be alternating 30 seconds of sprint exercise with 3 minutes of lower-intensity jogging at 60 percent of your VO2 max for a total of 30 minutes. The intensity of the intervals will increase the EPOC when compared to a steady-state run of 30 minutes at 60 percent of VO2 max.      

Does EPOC really matter for me?

Absolutely. It is easiest to think about EPOC as a post hoc measure of exercise intensity. If you worked harder or longer it is going to take your body more time to recover from the exercise session. During this time, your body is burning additional calories as it attempts to return to homeostasis. These extra calories can be quite useful if your goal is weight loss.  If you burn off an extra 120 calories after every workout by being a little more intense, these afterburn calories will add up. If you do 100 workouts a year this would add up to an extra 3.4 pounds per year lost on the scale, all because of afterburn.

And in addition to the increased caloric expenditure after exercise has ended, research is continuing to show high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and sprint-interval training (SIT)—the kinds of training strategies that raise EPOC—are also effective strategies for lowering blood sugar and reducing intramyocellular fat deposits. Burning more calories and having a larger impact on meaningful blood measures of health, all in less time, are powerful arguments for considering these strategies. Remember, you only have so much time to exercise, so you want to use that time wisely.  

How do I apply these principles to my own training?

I have three strategies incorporating the principles of EPOC that I like to try to push on my clients (always check with your physician before beginning a new exercise program):

  1. Be sure to incorporate at least two days of intense interval training into your workouts each week. Start by alternating 3-4 minutes of lower-intensity cardiovascular exercise (say 50-70 percent of heart rate max) and 30-60 seconds of 90-105 percent of HR max for 20-30 minutes. Be sure your sprint intervals are truly maximal exertion. Slowly increase both the amount of time spent at the higher-intensity intervals, the number of intervals, and the overall length of time of the training session. Eventually your workouts should look like those of elite sprinters: short, highly intense efforts interspersed with brief recovery periods for the entire body of the workout.

  2. One day per month, engage in an extended-duration exercise session. This might be a two hour spin class. It might be doubling your normal distance on your running route. It might mean performing two small group workouts back-to-back. Whatever you do for exercise, multiply it by a factor of two or three at least one time per month. These extended-duration exercise sessions, even if at lower intensity, are great ways to shock the system and elicit a huge EPOC.

  3. If possible, take three ten-minute walks per day during your work day. The amount of time spent sitting is now known to be an independent risk factor for our health. The more time you sit, the sicker you get. But breaking up your day by throwing in three ten-minute walks at 10 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. is a great way to increase your daily step count and influence EPOC in a positive way. (No time to walk for ten minutes? Honestly, I don’t understand this. People waste more time opening garbage email and joking back and forth with irrelevant weekend details than they could ever possibly waste on a few ten-minute walks each day. If you don’t have time, you are simply wasting time somewhere else.)

Will EPOC lead to epic fat loss? No. A good exercise plan carried out over a long enough period of time is the only way to produce epic fat loss. However, the underlying principles that affect EPOC can help you consume more calories in less time and perhaps even benefit your health in other ways. I strongly suggest considering some of these strategies in your training program to improve results and enhance your health.    

Listen to the beat: Can heart rate recovery predict death?


What if I told you I could make a better-than-average prediction of your lifespan over the next eight years just by calculating how fast your heart recovers after exercise?  What if I also told you that even if you fail this quick calculation test, it is not an immediate death sentence, but rather a fantastic warning system that alerts you to a problem and gives you a chance to make amends?  Would you be interested in learning more?  Well, if avoiding death is on your list of 2015 New Year’s resolutions, you are going to love this information.

We have all experienced the familiar increase in heart rate after going up a few flights of stairs or running to catch a plane at the airport.  A simple yet amazing process occurs.  The brain senses a change and cues the cardiovascular system to increase the heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure to supply the body with the oxygen it will need for the extra effort.  But have you ever considered the mechanisms behind the opposite side of this coin?  How do our bodies put the brakes on this ramp-up system and reestablish homeostasis; and can this process tell us anything about our risk of heart disease or death?

Heart rate recovery (HRR) is the term we use to describe the drop in heart rate following physical exertion.  Generally speaking, we assume the faster the drop after exertion the better the health of the cardiovascular system.  We have long known of accelerated HRR in athletes as compared to the general population.  This accelerated recovery is thought to be the result of improved vagal tone.  The vagus nerve has many functions, but one of the primary ones is to slow down the heart rate for the parasympathetic aspect of the autonomic nervous system.  For our simplistic purposes, think of the role of the vagus nerve as the equivalent of brakes on your car, except in this case it’s a brake for your heart.  If you have good brake pads and the system is maintained, you can smoothly decelerate your car and avoid problems.  If, on the other hand, your brakes are worn or ineffective for some reason, you will have a harder time slowing down and preventing a serious problem.  In the same manner, the interplay between the accelerator pedal (sympathetic nervous system) and the brake (parasympathetic nervous system) and the effectiveness of the brake to slow down the heart rate after exertion might be critical in the body’s ability to avoid a crash.

In 1999 researchers examined the relationship between heart rate recovery from exercise and mortality. For six years they followed 2,428 adults without a history of heart failure or coronary revascularization and without pacemakers.1 It is important to note these patients did not have a history of heart disease.  Of the total patients, 639, or 26%, had abnormally low HRR after one minute following cessation of exercise.  An abnormally low value was considered to be a drop of 12 or fewer beats per minute after the first minute of recovery. 

After six years, 213 patients had died from various causes.  Of these 213 patients, 56% had abnormally low values for heart rate recovery.  This equated to a relative risk of 19% for those with an abnormal recovery versus 5% for all others.  This was one of the first studies to clearly show heart rate recovery as a powerful independent predictor of death.

Since the investigation back in 1999, researchers have continued to clarify the association between HRR and mortality.2,4,5 One key finding in the last ten years has been that cardiac rehab can improve heart rate recovery in patients with heart disease, and this improvement is linked to a decrease in mortality from all causes.3,4  A retrospective study published in the journal Circulation in 2011 demonstrated once again the strong association between abnormal heart rate recovery and all-cause mortality. Not only that, but it also showed that individuals who normalized their HRR after phase two cardiac rehab returned their relative risk to that of patients with baseline normal HRR.3

Let’s assume you are buying into the well-supported argument that heart rate recovery can be an important predictor of your health and mortality, and you want to use this information to test yourself.  How would you go about doing it?  All you really need is a stopwatch, a step, and the ability to find your pulse. 

1)    Begin by finding your target heart rate range by subtracting your age from 220  (For example: 220 – 50 years old = 170 beats per minute).  Now multiply this by 85%  (170 x .85 = 145 beats per minute).  A fifty-year-old individual would want to get her heart rate over 145 beats per minute for the test.

2)    The next step is to figure out how to measure your pulse.  To find your pulse, press lightly on the carotid artery in your neck located just toward either side and directly below the jaw bone; or you can use the radial artery in your wrist, which is located just below your thumb.  Got it?  Great! 

3)    Now press the start button on the stopwatch and begin by stepping up and down on a step at a cadence of at least 96 beats per minute.  Those individuals in good condition will probably need to raise this cadence up to 120 beats per minute or greater to achieve 85% of their predicted maximal heart rate.  Whatever cadence you choose, you can easily download a cadence app on your smart phone to guide you.  Your goal is to reach your 85% or greater target after about 2–3 minutes of stepping. 

4)    After two minutes of stepping, find your pulse and begin counting for ten seconds, then multiply by six to get your pulse rate.  If you have not yet reached 85% of your predicted maximal heart rate then continue stepping at a faster cadence for another minute.  Once you reach your target, stop exercising, walk slowly around the room, and take your pulse again for ten seconds, then multiply by six. 

5)    At the end of one minute, take your pulse again for ten seconds and multiply by six.  Subtract the first measurement from the second measurement to calculate your heart rate recovery.  If you dropped more than 12 beats per minute, congratulations, you passed the test.  (You can also take your HR at the end of two minutes with a passing score being a drop of more than 42 beats during recovery). 

If you failed, should you go see about a grave plot?  No.  But it is darn sure time to stop screwing around and think about some serious interventions to improve your health and fitness.

Action plan following the test:

1)    If you failed to achieve a 12 bpm drop during the first minute after exercise (or 42 in the first two minutes) then the first step in your action plan is to go and see your physician.  You need a full medical exam from a qualified physician BEFORE we can suggest an intervention plan.

2)    Once you have been cleared by your physician, you should establish a regular aerobic exercise routine of at least 4x per week for 30 minutes at 50–70% of your heart rate max and a resistance training plan 2x per week.

3)    Once you have been cleared by your physician and become accustomed to your new exercise routine (about 6–12 weeks) it is time to begin working high intensity interval training (HIIT) into your routine 2–3 times per week.  HIIT is simply the act of alternating periods of very high heart rate (80–95% of max) with periods of recovery. 

The benefits of HIIT to cardiovascular endurance, blood sugar regulation, body fat loss, and mitochondrial function, as well as central hemodynamic variables, are widely published.  It is also exciting to note that these benefits are extending to at-risk populations such as patients with known cardiovascular disease, prior cardiovascular surgery, heart transplants, diabetes, and even certain autoimmune diseases.

For me, however, the real benefit of HIIT for the topic at hand comes from my—as yet unproven—hypothesis. I believe we will eventually find the vigorous alternating actions of acceleration and deceleration on the heart, which are so prevalent in HIIT as compared to moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise, will lead to increased vagal tone and improved heart rate recovery.  I believe this benefit of HIIT will yield tremendous outcomes as far as decreases in mortality and overall cardiovascular health benefits.  I believe these benefits will exceed those associated with continuous moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise, thus extending the reach and breadth of impact HIIT has on the health and fitness of both general and at-risk populations.     

Simply put, I believe (though, at least to my knowledge, it is in no way proven) that if your heart is regularly and systematically exposed to accelerating and recovering phases along the entire spectrum of its potential range, your health and fitness outcomes will be superior to those of other training methods or inaction. 

1.      Cole, C. R., Blackstone, E. H., Pashkow, F. J., Snader, C. E., & Lauer, M. S. (1999). Heart-rate recovery immediately after exercise as a predictor of mortality. New England Journal of Medicine, 341(18), 1351-1357.

2.      Cole, C. R., Foody, J. M., Blackstone, E. H., Lauer, M. S. (2000). Heart rate recovery after submaximal exercise testing as a predictor of mortality in cardiovascularly healthy cohorts. Annals of Internal Medicine, 132:552-555. 

3.      Jolly, M. A., Brennan, D. M., & Cho, L. (2011). Impact of exercise on heart rate recovery. Circulation, 124(14), 1520-1526.

4.      MacMillan, Davis, Durham, and Matteson (2006). Exercise and heart rate recovery. Heart and Lung, 35(6), 383-390.

5.      Watanabe, J., Thamilarasan, M., Blackstone, E. H., Thomas, J. D., & Lauer, M. S. (2001). Heart rate recovery immediately after treadmill exercise and left ventricular systolic dysfunction as predictors of mortality: The case of stress echocardiography. Circulation, 104(16), 1911-1916.


Pinto Beans: Not JUST for hilarious flatulence

My little girls have grown up on beans.  Black beans, green beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, black eyed peas, and most definitely pinto beans, have all been regular components of our lunch and dinner menus.  While I fully admit my sophomoric sense of humor thinks it is hilarious that both of them have the gastric acoustics of a 14 year old hound dog, I do not feed them this mighty legume just to increase my happiness levels and laugh periodically throughout my day.  Here are just a few of the reasons to add this unbeatable bean to your daily routine.

1) Reduced risk of heart disease

2) Better regulation of blood sugar

3) A decrease in the intake of sweets

4) 15 grams of fiber per cup!

5) Great source of protein and veggie iron

6) A fantastic exercise recovery food      




Burn More Fat: WHEN You Eat Matters

You already know what you eat and how much you eat can has a profound influence on your body fat.  But did you know when you eat  might be important as well? 

Until recently, most dietitians and exercise professionals would have told you that it does not matter when you eat with regard to body fat gain or loss.  For fat loss, the standard response has long been that the total caloric balance over time is all that matters.  Yet recently, results from well-controlled studies have lent support to the idea that when you eat could have a substantial influence on stimulating fat loss, enhancing insulin sensitivity, and preventing weight gain.

Fast—Exercise—Then Eat 

Several studies have shown that fasting before an exercise session may enhance fat loss and increase glucose sensitivity when compared to exercise after eating.  Exercise following a twenty-three hour fast showed increased fat mobilization and utilization in young healthy males compared to the same population in a non-fasted state.2 Additionally, intramyocellular triglyceride content (stored fat in the muscles) decreases more readily, glycogen re-synthesis following a workout is enhanced, and the exercise intensity corresponding to maximal fat oxidation is increased, when sustained exhaustive exercise takes place in a fasting state.1,5,6  

Put simply, the body seems to be more adept at using stored muscle fat for energy (as opposed to carbohydrate) and replenishing its glycogen stores once exercise has ceased when we exercise after fasting.  These studies have lent support to the idea that, at least for a young healthy population, the body is better at burning fat for fuel in the fasted condition.

Many people dismiss the idea of fasting before exercise because of the known performance improvements of eating prior to exercise.  We have long known that eating before exercise improves both the peak intensity and the length of time exercise can be maintained, compared to exercising in a fasted state.3,4  Thus, if our goal is to compete at our top sustained performance level, eating before exercise and even during exercise are vitally important to the outcome.

Performance improvements aside, many exercisers probably do not care if they shave off two minutes from their half marathon time or are able to bike ride at a higher intensity for two or more hours.  In fact, I would argue, most people who exercise are doing so to enhance their physical appearance and maintain their health, not necessarily to maximize performance on any one particular task.  Central to the idea of these outcomes is optimizing body composition and regulating a healthy body weight.  In this case, a strategy that enhances fat loss and increases insulin sensitivity would be the ideal choice for many people.

In 2010 a well-done study by Van Proeyen et al.6 may have convinced many people once and for all of the benefits of exercising after fasting.  The researchers compared three groups of young males who were each being fed a hyper-caloric and high fat diet designed to cause weight gain.  The control group ate the excess calories and fat and did not exercise.  The carbohydrate group consumed calories before and during lengthy sustained morning exercise sessions four days a week for six weeks.  The fasted group ate nothing before or during lengthy sustained morning exercise sessions four days a week for six weeks BUT made up for the missed calories by consuming them later in the day.  Thus, there was no daily caloric intake difference between the groups.  What happened?

Fasted exercise enhanced insulin sensitivity, prevented weight gain, and enhanced adaptations to cellular glucose transport by increasing muscle GLUT4 protein when compared to the other two groups. 

Simply put, all the groups were fed a similar hyper-caloric high fat diet designed to cause weight gain and insulin resistance.  In spite of equivalent caloric intake between the groups, the group that exercised in the fasting state fared far better than the other two groups in terms of weight gain, body fat, and insulin sensitivity.  Exercise in the fasted state seemed to ward off some of the negative outcomes of bad nutrition.

So what does all this mean for you? 

It depends on your personal situation and goals.  If your goal is to maximize fat loss, you have a family history of type 2 diabetes, you want to get rid of that annoying roll around your middle, or you are entering into the holiday season where extra caloric intake is likely, exercising in the morning after fasting for 12 to 14 hours may be the right choice for you.  It seems clear that lengthy exercise sessions after a period of fasting may help with IMTG fat oxidation, weight gain from excess calories, and increasing glucose sensitivity (At least for a young and healthy male population).  Thus, morning exercise on an empty stomach may be very beneficial to you.  On the other hand, if your goal is to enhance performance, maximize muscle gains, or feel your best during a workout, it seems that consuming the right kinds and amounts of nutrients before exercise is the right choice for you.  (Check with your doctor before making such changes in your program)

The truth is, as with most things in life, what strategy you take will always depend on your individual goals.  Just remember—no matter what workout methodology you choose, as long as you are consuming a low-quality, highly processed, high-caloric diet accompanied by an inconsistent exercise program, you will not meet any of your long term goals.  You must identify your goals so you can create an individually tailored diet and exercise plan to meet your specific needs.  This will not only lead to your best results, it will lead to the perpetual motivation only continual growth and personal achievement can accomplish.

*Opinion section—I personally highly recommend morning exercise in the fasted state for those who are cleared by their physician.  The enhanced fat oxidation during the workout, combined with improved glycogen storage from the post workout meal, provide fantastic fat-burning results and terrific recovery for the next workout.  Just be sure to talk to a registered dietitian (RD) about the right balance of nutrients for your post workout meal.





1. De Bock, K. et al. (2005). Exercise in the fasted state facilitates fibre type-specific intramyocellular lipid breakdown and stimulates glycogen resynthesis in humans.  Journal of Physiology, 564: 649-660.

2. Dohm, G.L., et al. (1986).  Metabolic responses to exercise after fasting.  Journal of Applied Physiology, 64(4): 1363-1368.

3. Schabort, E.A., et al. (1999).  The effect of a preexercise meal on time to fatigue during prolonged cycling exercise.  Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 31(3): 464-471.

4. Sherman, W.M., Pedan, M., & Wright, D. (1991). Carbohydrate feedings 1 hour before exercise improves cycling performance. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 54: 866-870.

5. Van Proeyen, K. et al. (2011).  Beneficial metabolic adaptations due to endurance exercise training in the fasted state.  Journal of Applied Physiology, 110(1): 236-245.

6. Van Proeyen, K. et al. (2010).  Training in a fasted state improves glucose tolerance during fat rich diet.  The Journal of Physiology, 588: 4289-4302




Five Common Mistakes Everyone Makes that Aggravate Low Back Pain

1) Opening the door for your spouse

Yes, the time-honored tradition of gentlemanly civility may actually be irritating your lower back if done incorrectly.  Pulling open a tight closing door above the waistline by reaching above shoulder height can aggravate your lower back by producing a larger reaction moment and resulting spinal load.  By simply pulling a handle toward the body in line with the lumbar vertebrae you can reduce the reactive joint moment and relieve your aching back.

2) Walking your large dog

Dog may be man’s best friend, but an untrained dog pulling on a leash is one of the worst enemies a lower back can make.  Leaning the torso back and pulling upward with the shoulder, as many people do, creates excess compression forces in the low back and disturbs proper spinal motor control. Try keeping the leash close to the body and focus your arms to pull directly through the low back to ensure many more fun-filled romps with Fido.

3) Vacuuming your house one-handed

It has to be done.  Dust bunnies are a real and ever-present danger in our modern lives.  But you don’t have to be in pain just because you had to vacuum.  Most people incorrectly assume it’s the bending that leads to their pain.  More likely, it is the simple act of pushing and pulling the vacuum to the side of the body. The large sustained reaction torque in the lower spine leaves you feeling stiff and uncomfortable the next day.  By simply pushing and pulling the vacuum with both hands directly in line with the lumbar vertebrae, you can eliminate asymmetric loading and reduce the reaction moment. 

4) Resistance training right after you wake up

Wake up, jump in the car, do a few quick stretches, then perform some burpees in boot camp class or smash a 300-yard drive from tee one.  This scenario may actually be increasing your chances of low back pain.  Low back expert Dr. Stuart McGill has shown evidence for increased annulus (disc) stresses during activity after a bout of bed rest.  He cautions that, prior to a morning workout which includes multiple spinal flexions, care should be taken to move around for at least an hour to reduce the risk of aggravating the low back pain.  He also cautions against performing morning stretches such as the classic supine knees to the chest or toe touching.  These stretches can actually destabilize the spine prior to activity.  

5) Not picking up light objects like a golfer

Everyone knows the classic “one leg back” golf ball pick-up a pro uses on the course to confidently lift out her tournament-winning birdie putt.  But did you know this is exactly the same kind of spine-sparing strategy you can use to pick up any light object that falls onto the floor? It’s especially beneficial after prolonged sitting or stooping.  By simply leaning forward at the hips and balancing on one foot, with a hand on a golf club, desk, or counter for balance, rotate about the hip, lean the torso forward, and lift up the object.  Projecting one of your legs out backward allows you to use it as a cantilever and reduce the spinal compressive and torsion load.  Who knew the confident way you picked up your golf ball after the eagle on seventeen was also the way you should have picked up the pen that rolled off your desk this afternoon?