There are a lot of misconceptions about cardio floating around the fitness community. There are people that recommend more than an hour a day of cardio to lose weight, and there are others who get extremely lean without ever doing a single minute of cardio. Then there are others who say you should exercise only in the fat-burning zone, while others say high-intensity cardio will shed fat like no other. Let’s end the confusion.
Cardio is a Fat Loss Tool
Cardio is a tool for creating a calorie deficit. That is a very important piece of information. It is just one way to create a calorie deficit. There are also many other ways to create a deficit and burn calories with exercise. Strength training, sports, walking, and playing are just a few examples.
The other way to create a calorie deficit is through your diet. Weight loss is a side effect of negative energy balance. How you choose to create that negative energy balance is personal preference. Some people prefer to eat more and exercise more, while others prefer to eat just a little bit less and cut back on the cardio a lot. In the end, the differences are negligible.
But Wait, Cardio is Good For the Heart!
Well yes, it absolutely is. However, so is any kind of physical activity. That means activities like strength training, when done with intensity, will not only build muscle and burn calories, but will also improve your cardiovascular system.
The important thing to realize is that cardio doesn’t have to just mean the standard 1 hour of steady-state exercise at a particular heart rate. It can be dynamic in nature. Your cardiovascular system doesn’t know if you’re running, biking, climbing, or weight lifting. All it knows is the stress that’s placed upon it, and that stress can be applied with just about any kind of activity.
Prioritize Strength Training
The biggest mistake people make is prioritizing cardio when trying to lose weight. Fat loss and cardio machines are like peanut butter and jelly for most people. The assumption is that you can’t have one without the other.
However, these machines do very little to build muscle. So what happens is when you create a calorie deficit and start losing weight, you get a higher proportion of muscle loss to fat loss as compared to strength training.
Remember, we don’t just want to lose weight. We want to lose fat. 20 pounds of weight loss means very little if half of that was muscle. As was mentioned earlier, strength training will build muscle and burn calories. It too is cardiovascular in nature and will do a lot more for your physique than the treadmill ever will.
Strength training should be the core of any weight loss program. Additional steady-state cardio can be used as a tool to create an additional deficit, but keep in mind that it is just one of many tools you can use to accomplish that goal.
Do the Least Amount of Cardio That’s Necessary
When it comes to weight loss, I like to take a less is more approach. When in a calorie deficit your body is already under a lot of stress. It needs the calories and nutrients you consume to build muscle, recover from workouts, and to keep necessary body functions running optimally.
Most of your calorie deficit should come from your diet. A good rule of thumb to start is to create a deficit so that 75% of your calorie reduction comes from your diet, and 25% from exercise. That means for a 500 calorie deficit, 375 of those calories should come from eating fewer calories, and the other 125 each day should come from dedicated exercise activities.
It is much easier to eat 1 tbsp less of fat each day than it is to run a mile every day. Each one will create about a 100 calorie deficit, but the latter will cause much more stress on the body, especially in a hypo-caloric environment.
There’s no need to kill yourself with cardio every day. That is not a sustainable lifestyle for most people. Instead, choose an activity level you can live with for a lifetime. Then, adjust your food intake to reach your goals. If you want to lose weight, eat less, and if you want to gain weight, eat more. In the end, it really is that simple.