Before I get into the meat of this post, let’s make one thing clear: You should stay active while fasting. You shouldn’t just sit around. You shouldn’t give up. It’s actually imperative that you exercise while fasting.
Everything we do, or don’t do, sends a message. If you stay sedentary during a fast, you’re telling your body several bad messages.
What Not Exercising While Fasting Does to Your Fitness
- It tells your body you’re too weak to handle a fast. In previous incarnations of the human, fasting preceded food procurement. You didn’t stroll over to the fridge for a meal. You worked for it. You hunted (and gathered) for it. You exerted yourself to fill that empty belly. Simply lying around during a fast meant you’d die. Don’t tell yourself you’re too weak to handle the fast.
- It tells your body you don’t need all that muscle tissue. If you don’t use your muscles during a fast, your body will consider them fair game. Those muscles can provide a big dose of amino acids that convert into glucose, and if you’re not using them, you’ll lose them to make glucose. “This bozo obviously doesn’t need those biceps, let’s dig in!”
Indeed, one of the reasons most people lose muscle when reducing calories and losing weight is that they fail to lift weights. Another big reason is they fail to eat enough protein, of course, but simply by lifting weights during calorie deficits, we can retain muscle mass. Since a fast is by definition an extreme reduction in calories, exercise becomes all the more important.
Okay, so exercising during a fast is a Good Move. How should you exercise?
The short story is that for short fasts (from the shortened eating window variety up to 24–36 hours), you should exercise the way you normally do.
For extended fasts, from 48 hours to a week or more, you should still exercise, but a little differently than “normal.”
Let’s get into it:
How to Exercise During a Longer Fast
1. Walk as much as possible.
The simplest form of exercise that everyone should do while fasting is walking. There’s no trick or science to walking while fasting. You just walk while not eating. You can do as much as you can squeeze in, because fasted walking isn’t just easy and not stressful—it’s anti-stress. It keeps you busy when you can’t think of anything but eating, when fasting is becoming a chore. Research indicates that walking while fasting is no more stressful than walking on eating days; in fact, fasting subjects spontaneously maintain their daily step count without affecting the benefits.
What are the benefits?
If you have trouble sticking to the fast—if you’re the type who wants to eat because you’re bored and can’t think of anything else to do, you need to walk as much as possible during a fast.
In those who are already pretty lean but want to get very lean, fasted walking can be effective. The classic bodybuilding trick for cutting body fat is the fasted morning walk. Wake up, consume no calories, and go for a brisk 20- to 30-minute walk as the fat swims around your body. This is the hardest body composition transition—from lean to very lean. Lean is what the body “wants,” and going lower requires getting over the natural tendency to hold on to diminished body fat stores. A fasted walk, jog, or cycling session performed in the aerobic zone almost forces the body fat to release into circulation. Insulin is low. Sensitivity is high. The stage is perfect, in theory.
2. Lift weights to preserve muscle.
On an extended fast, lifting weights is imperative. On a short-term fast, lifting weights is a great way to break the fast and augment the anabolic response from feeding. Your strategies for both will be different.
If you’re in the middle of a long-term fast and you want to stave off muscle loss:
- Lift at a higher intensity for lower reps.
- Don’t lift to failure.
- Don’t max out.
- On a scale of 1–10, with 1 being effortless and 10 taking all you have to complete, stay around a 6–8.
- Keep several reps in the tank.
- Stick to full-body compound movements rather than isolation. You want to hit the entire body with a powerful stimulus. You want to send your whole body a message, not just your biceps or your glutes.
This will provide a strong-enough stimulus to maintain muscle mass without being so stressful that you start breaking down more muscle mass than you can maintain.
3. Do “easy” cardio.
If you’re going to do “cardio” or endurance training during an extended fast, keep the intensity low to stay in the “aerobic zone”—the heart rate zone where you’re burning primarily body fat. A fasting human should be able to remain active in that zone almost indefinitely without needing much, or any, food. To determine your aerobic heart rate, subtract your chronological age from 180:
- If you’re 20, your aerobic heart rate zone would be 160 beats per minute. Don’t exceed 160 BPM when endurance training in a fasted state.
- If you’re 50, your aerobic heart rate zone would be 130 BPM. Don’t exceed 150 BPM when endurance training in a fasted state.
This will feel “easy,” and that’s the entire point. You’re not dipping into glycogen stores or increasing sugar cravings because you aren’t burning much sugar at all. You’re just (mostly) burning your own body fat.
I’d stay away from more intense endurance training, HIIT, and sprinting during a long fast unless it’s at the end and you plan on breaking the fast shortly afterwards. That kind of activity will make it much harder to fast. While you can definitely lift weights midway through a five-day fast and come out the other end okay, you probably won’t do so well doing a dozen hill sprints midway through that same fast.
How to Exercise During a Short-Term Fast
If you’re doing short-term fasting, train as you normally would. Evidence suggests that not only will your performance not suffer, but the training effect may also be augmented if you time your eating right. Here’s what research tells us:
- In one recent study, males on a time-restricted eating schedule who lifted to failure for 8–12 reps for four sets ate 650 fewer calories than the non-fasting group, but retained all their muscle mass and even made gains on strength and muscle endurance. That said, the non-fasting group made more size gains.
- Another study in women found that resistance training on a time-restricted eating schedule was fine and led to muscle gains as long as calorie intake and protein intake were maintained.
- A 2009 study found that, compared to athletes who lifted weights after breakfast, athletes who lifted weights in the morning in a fasted state had an augmented anabolic response to a post-workout protein-and-carb shake.
There’s also merit in maintaining the fast for a few more hours after your workout. This will really augment the growth hormone release—which is great for fat burning and tissue maintenance. I do this about half the time I work out in a fasted state.
There are no hard-and-fast rules to exercising while fasting. After all, you’re still you. You know what works for you. You know what makes you tick.
But if you want me to generalize? Most people on a longer fast will do best going for a walk every day and lifting at least once or twice.
What about you, folks? How do you exercise on a longer fast?
Take care and be well.
Klempel MC, Bhutani S, Fitzgibbon M, Freels S, Varady KA. Dietary and physical activity adaptations to alternate day modified fasting: implications for optimal weight loss. Nutr J. 2010;9:35.
Tinsley GM, Forsse JS, Butler NK, et al. Time-restricted feeding in young men performing resistance training: A randomized controlled trial. Eur J Sport Sci. 2017;17(2):200-207.
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