As I've gained more coaching clients, both online and in-person, a similar question has been popping up...
"How much and what type of cardio should I be doing to lose weight?"
Having lost over 140 pounds, I have learned what works and doesn't work for long-term weight loss success, and I can tell you that cardio isn't all it's cracked up to be.
But the ineffectiveness of cardio isn't just my opinion.
Many studies have found that cardio alone doesn't help people lose weight. In fact, some studies show that individuals who engage in cardio alone end up gaining weight in the long run (pun very intended)! (study)
And the people who are successful with using cardio to maintain or lose weight aren't in the clear either...
I've seen people who focus on cardio alone to stay thin gain 20-30 pounds once their schedules no longer allow for 90-120 minutes of cardio each day.
This is mostly because they never address the real culprit of weight gain - nutrition.
When it comes to losing weight, what and how much we eat is far more important than exercising.
So is cardio irrelevant?
Well, not exactly. There are a few occasions where cardio can be a good thing...
Occasion #1 - You Actually Enjoy Cardio
That's right, some people actually enjoy doing cardio!
I personally can't relate...
But, I GUESS it makes sense considering exercise, and particularly cardiovascular exercise, has been shown to release "feel-good" hormones known as endorphins.
This flood of endorphins is what many runners refer to as the "Runner's High."
Here's the deal.
If you enjoy going for runs, taking Zumba classes, or doing cardio for reasons OTHER than losing weight, more power to you!
You do you.
But if you are like me and would rather eat a bag of fire than go for a jog, then don't do it unless your calories are already very low (see occasion #2).
Cardio isn't going to magically burn the fat off of your stomach.
(Unless you live at Hogwarts, then maybe you could pull that one off)
For us muggles, losing weight comes down to being in a calorie deficit which is most easily achieved through eating less food than your body needs to maintain weight.
Note: Before I get cursed by every keyboard warrior and exercise guru for advising people to stop being active, chill out.
I am strictly talking about body composition here.
Obviously, there are health benefits associated with cardiovascular activity, but that's not my focus.
I'm focused on helping people lose fat and achieve a healthy body weight.
For that, cardio isn't need 95% of the time.
Occasion #2 - Your weight loss calories are already very low
For some, losing weight will require calories to be very low.
And typically lower than they would like...
Things like BMR, Activity Level, NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), and Body Fat % all have a role in the number of calories a unique person would need.
Because of these differences, calorie needs should be addressed on a person-to-person basis.
Take 1200 Calories
I'm not sure why, but I always see 1200 calories flaunted in magazines and fitness articles as the best number of calories to lose weight.
This impersonal calorie recommendation is incredibly irresponsible.
For a six-foot male with 12% body fat, eating 1,200 calories to lose weight would be absurd. Following such an extreme approach would cause all sorts of nasty side effects.
HOWEVER, I have worked with smaller women who only need around 1,800-1,900 calories to maintain their weight.
Take Sally (my hypothetical female client) who is a sedentary, 5'3", 51-year-old with 40% body fat.
Sally wants to lose about 1-2 pounds a week.
To do this effectively, Sally would need to eat around 1,200 - 1,300 calories a day to see progress.
If you've ever counted calories before, then you know that 1,200 calories is basically nothing.
It's the equivalent of a few tiny snack-sized meals throughout the day.
So, there are two things Sally could do in this situation:
- She could stay inactive and stick to eating 1,200 calories a day, or
- She could add in 200-300 calories of cardio each day and bump her daily calories up to 1,500.
I wouldn't try to convince her either way since both will work, but I have a theory that most people who would prefer doing an hour or two of cardio a day so they can eat a few hundred calories more and get the same fat loss results.
Occasion #3 - You've Stalled
Remember that time you chucked you bathroom scale out the window because you were strict with your diet and exercise plan for two weeks and didn't lose a single pound!?!?
If everything else was on point (accurate measurements, correct calorie goals, etc), then it may be due to a weight loss stall.
Weight loss stalls typically arise because our bodies begin to adapt to the energy needs of a lower body weight, activity level, and lower energy levels.
When this happens, the next logical step is to lower calories by 100-200 calories so that fat loss ensues.
But remember Sally from above?
She is already eating 1,200 calories a day to lose weight!
The LAST thing she wants to do is drop calories even further...
So in this situation, it would probably be easier to increase her activity level to burn an extra 200 calories a day rather than restrict more food.
Remember, losing weight is a math game.
Removing 200 calories from food and burning 200 calories from extra activity will usually produce the same result.
This is why trying to use cardio alone to lose weight is so ineffective.
If you wanted to lose one pound of fat a week just using cardio, you'd need to do 500 calories of cardio a DAY to get there!
And that's A TON to do every single day too...
Here's what a 160-pound woman would need to do if she wanted to burn 500 calories:
- 60 minutes of Zumba
- 80 minutes of Walking (3.5 mph)
- 45 minutes of Racquetball
- 120 minutes of Pilates
- 40 minutes of Jogging (6.5 mph)
AND you'll still have to account for your diet to some degree as cardio has been shown to increase appetite in studies. (proof I'm not a liar).
Now, it's not perfect science as only certain types of cardio have been shown to significantly increase appetite (typically long, drawn-out mild intensity cardio such as jogging).
Plus, some people actually find that cardio blunts their appetite...
However, I've talked with a ton of peeps and worked with clients and concluded that the majority get hungrier and tend to eat more when doing excessive amounts of cardio.
So What Type of Cardio Should I Do?
Remember the three occasions when cardio can be useful:
- You enjoy cardio (.....weirdo....jk, jk)
- Your calories are low
- You've stalled and don't want to drop calories
Unless you fit into that list, don't focus on cardio to lose weight.
And again, this advice is just for losing weight. If you need to do cardio for health reasons (you're diabetic, have fibromyalgia, etc.), then you should follow the advice of your doctor.
(legal butt = covered)
There are only three styles of cardio I like and prescribe to clients:
1. The Sunday Stroll (aka low-intensity walking)
Walking is a fantastic way to exercise, especially if you're lifting weights while dieting (which you should be).
Mid to high-intensity cardio tends to impede recovery and negatively effect lifting performance.
On the other hand, walking doesn't affect your recovery and actually has many benefits for your health!
You can also use your time walking to do other activities such as meditation, listening to audiobooks, talking on the phone, avoiding screaming kids, etc.
Quick Story: My mom ordered me a FitBit for my birthday this year. I've typically avoided using any activity tracking device because they can feed the "Do more cardio to lose weight" mindset I hate...
But after a few days of forcing myself to wear it, I began to see the appeal.
Although I don't advise extra cardio for weight loss, I do think that we should be sitting less and moving more throughout the day.
The FitBit helps keep me accountable to continue moving throughout the day rather than sitting on my butt writing articles ;).
Plus, I've been classically conditioned like one of Pavlov's dogs from the buzzing reward of hitting 10,000 steps a day...
2. HIIT Cardio
HIIT stands for High-Intensity Interval Training and unlike most drawn-out cardio, you only need around 10-20 minutes to get an effective workout.
I recommend HIIT for people who need to use cardio but don't have the time to go for a 45-60 minute walk.
Plus, there's some evidence that HIIT cardio can cause MORE fat loss than traditional styles of cardio.
HIIT cardio is tough, and I wouldn't recommend more than 1-2 sessions a week.
Any more and it might affect recovery.
3. Accidental Activity
In my opinion, this is the most efficient way to do cardio.
Accidental Activity can include things like:
- Playing sports with friends
- Standing more throughout the day
- Getting your 10k steps and FitBit bragging rights (I'm looking at you, mom...)
- Push mowing in place of a riding mower
- Walking to the grocery store
As you can see, all types of activities can fit into this category.
Whether or not you do cardio will depend on your personal situation.
Cardio is a tool, not a necessity.
The majority of your results will come from diet, weight training, and consistency.
Did this article help you out? If so, I have two teeny-tiny favors to ask...
1. If you haven't grabbed your FREE copy of my Beginner Fitness Start-Up Plan, Click Here.
It's an in-depth and easy to read diet and exercise plan for getting started. It also dispels some of the common fitness myths circulating the Interwebz.
2. If this article helped you, I'd be extremely grateful if you shared it with someone else you think it could help ;).