Whenever I have a client or friend tell me about their weight loss journey it no doubt involves them doing insane amounts of cardio. I’m talking 5-7 days a week. Does cardio burn calories? Yes. Does it burn more in a 30 minute session than just lifting weights? Yes. Having said that, it doesn’t mean it’s a better route for fat loss. Let’s expand this point.
Your Body is Built for Survival
There was a study done on the Hadza tribe. These guys spent most of their days running in order to track and hunt their food. They were very skinny individuals, and it was assumed by the researchers that due to these observations, they must be burning calories like crazy. What the results found instead, was that they actually burned less calories than expected. Why is this?
Look at all the top athletes. Think about any time you got better at a sport. You get better because you become more efficient with your movements. The more calories your body has to expend performing a task, the more tired it’s going to get. If you are playing a sport, or in this case doing lots of cardio on a regular basis, your body learns to adapt to this stimulus. It doesn’t want to be wasteful. While in the short term, you will burn a lot of calories (especially compared to lifting), over the long term, it will burn less and less calories in the same amount of time. I don’t know about you but I do not want to be spending the same amount of time only to get less results.
Lifting weights on the other hand, ADDS muscle to your frame. When you are adding muscle, it is calorically expensive to keep on. Therefore, your body burns more calories at rest, the more muscle you have. Wooo! So go lift some damn weights! Who knew there were more advantages to being swole other than being shirtless at the beach. For more detail on this check out my other article on why you need to hit the weights.
The other thing to keep in mind, is if you are in a constant deficit of calories (as you would be in a diet), doing lots of cardio (which we just said your body wants to be efficient at), AND muscle is calorically expensive to have (without an appropriate stimulus), that’s a potential recipe for disaster. Depending on how low your calories are, or how long you’ve been on the diet, your body will start taking calories away from the muscle (since you presumably are only running and not lifting weights), causing you to lose that sexy, toned look you’re trying to get and instead look skinny fat. Yup, you’re getting the opposite result of what you wanted.
Let’s also keep in mind, 5-7 days of cardio is boring as hell. People who succeed the most on their journey to fat loss do so because of their ability to make it a daily habit. We need to stop thinking of cardio as just running on a treadmill. There is HIIT training, LISS, and NEAT.
HIIT - HIIT is a form of cardio where you’ll do 20-30 second bouts of all out effort, followed by 30-60 second rest. It repeats 5-6 times and then you cool down. Most sessions are 15-30 minutes long.
LISS - LISS is a slower form of cardio where you run at a just above a conversational pace, for 30-40 minutes. This can be done anywhere from a couple times a week, to every day (just depends on your goals). That’s because it isn’t very taxing on your heart as HIIT can be. It also isn’t as high impact on our joints or cortisol levels.
NEAT - NEAT is basically all the activity you do that you aren’t aware of. When you’re just walking your dog, fidgeting, or moving to and from places. You are only in the gym 1-2 hours of a day. That leaves 12-13 hours of extra time you could be “sneaking” in extra calorie burn.
The best approach is to use all of them as tools towards your weight loss goals. I recommend starting with NEAT first. Like I said, if we can make it a habitual daily practice, we’re more likely to stick with it even after our diet is done. The biggest issue most dieters have isn’t losing the weight. It’s gaining it all back once they are done because they treated weight loss as a temporary change.
Incorporating NEAT makes it fit seamlessly into your life. For starters make sure you are shooting for 10,000 steps a day. If you already hit that, go for 12,000. Instead of forcing yourself to go run on the treadmill after a long day of work, make it a goal to hit the 10,000-12,000 steps. Whether that’s longer walks with the dog, walking around the block, or walking in your office, use whatever ways you find fit to just sprinkle throughout your day. Not only is it helping you develop a healthier habit, but if done right (at least in the beginning when the step count is lower), you might find you never even have to step foot in the gym because you are hitting your goals already! Doesn’t that sound nice?
Eventually on your weight loss journey, your step count is going to get pretty high. Let’s say it gets to 20,000 steps. Whatever number it hits, it’ll start getting hard getting it all in throughout the day. It is now that you can start incorporating cardio sessions in the form of LISS or HIIT, to top off your numbers. Again, we are adding tools as we need them. The cardio in the gym is only to help you reach what you couldn’t incorporate on your own. This way, it doesn’t have to feel so daunting throughout your journey. It also changes your relationship with weight loss, and what it means to have healthy habits.
Try this out for your next weight loss block, and let me know how it goes. Don’t forget! Make sure you are lifting weights 2-3 times a week to maintain that muscle you’ve worked so hard to achieve!