When people want to lose weight the FIRST thing they do is jump to cardio. This might be because they’ve heard cardio burns the most calories, and they’re right. Just because it may burn the most calories (in a given session), does not mean it’s superior though.
Why You Shouldn’t Rely On Cardio for Weight Loss
When you start to do cardio you will burn a lot of calories. A vigorous, 30 minute session can burn 300-400 calories. While that might seem like a lot, let’s also remember 300-400 calories is also very easy to eat right back through your food. It is way too easy to eat the calories you burn.
The other issue is, the longer you do cardio for, the more efficient your body gets. What this means, ESPECIALLY on a diet, is in order to conserve your energy and not waste it on expending calories during a cardio session, over time, your body will burn LESS calories in the same given 30 minute session! This means you’d have to continue to do MORE cardio just to elicit the same results. Not only that, cardio doesn’t prioritize burning fat over muscle. In fact, once again, in a caloric restricted state, burning through muscle is going to be the preferred method unless external resistance (lifting weights) is applied. So now you are burning muscle, doing extra cardio week to week, just to lose the same weight.
The end result? You become a smaller, chubby version of who you were before. There is no nice “muscle tone”, or “shredded abs”.
So How Is Cardio Useful?
Cardio IS a useful tool to help with weight loss, but it shouldn’t be the first thing you go to. Your first step if you aren’t already, should be 2-3 days of resistance training. Like I said earlier, if your goal is to look tone and shredded, you want to hold onto whatever muscle you already have (if not build a little more). In a caloric restricted state, the body needs a damn good reason to keep on that muscle as it is very energy intensive to keep. Incorporating a proper weight lifting routine with some form of progression will send the proper signal to your body that it should keep the muscle it has in order to withstand this outside stimulus that keeps getting thrown at it. Think of it as your body doesn’t know that it is lifting weights, but that a stress is being placed, and for survival it needs to prioritize keeping that muscle to “fend off” this outside stimulus.
If you already train 2-3 times a week, the next step I’d say is to increase your step count. The reason I like this over adding cardio is sustainability. Shooting for say 10,000 steps creates a habit you can incorporate throughout your day, versus a boring 1 hour gym session on a treadmill you begrudgingly have to do after work when you are already tired. It also prevents you from being sedentary your entire day. Hitting 10,000 steps requires you to mindfully take time throughout your day to get up and walk. Whether that's a break at work to stop you from sitting 8 hours, or spending time outside with your family. It turns being active into a lifestyle. When you are not dieting this is great because you’ll have more calories you can get away with eating. During a diet, it helps you create a bigger deficit without having to lower your calories or dedicate time to cardio, making the weight loss journey way easier.
If after adding 10,000 steps (or 3,000-5,000 steps above whatever your average step count was originally) your weight loss still stalls, I STILL wouldn’t suggest cardio yet. At this point, now we can take a look at your diet. Consider lowering it by 500 calories so that in conjunction with the 10k step count you are further creating a deficit to lose weight.
NOW Add Cardio
If after the 2-3 days resistance training, the 10,000 steps, AND the 500 calorie drop you are still at a point in your weight loss journey that you hit another plateau, NOW add cardio. What we are going to do here is up the step count now to 15,000 steps (or 5,000 from whatever you were at). At this point if you can still hit that number by just adding movement to your day, then don’t feel the need to add cardio.
For some however, they may find hitting 15,000-20,000 steps too hard to hit on its own. Now is when using cardio as a tool works great. You are no longer seeing cardio at the gym as this daunting task that's required to lose weight. Instead, you are using it as a supplement to help top off your lifestyle in the short term. I have found following these steps has had a MUCH higher success rate with clients as it has helped them turn it into a habit they can keep after their diet is gone, but also provide them with an easier solution once they taper off, to refer back to if needed.
General Cardio Recommendations
Overall, I wouldn’t suggest doing more than 2 low to moderate 20-40 minute cardio specific sessions a week, coupled with 1-2 HIIT sessions. Try not to exceed 2-3 hours of total cardio per week. If you find yourself having to do that much, it may be time for a 4-8 week diet break where you can reset your metabolism by upping the calories, and pulling back on cardio to get ready for another round of dieting where you can start fresh again.