Dieting enters a weird headspace in most people. The last thing anyone says they want to do is eat less and do cardio. Yet, the FIRST thing everyone does when they start a diet is eat as little as possible and do as much cardio as they can cram in. This is not only an unsustainable approach, it isn’t even optimal. Most people can hit their fat loss goals doing half as much cardio as they think, while keeping the calories higher than they think.
When is Cardio A Good Tool for Fat Loss?
Build Up Your Metabolism
Step one. Build up your metabolism. As I mentioned before, people lower their calories way too much. If you have a lot more weight to lose, it will take some time, and an appreciable amount of calories to eventually get to where you want. If we know this going into it, then before we start ANYTHING, our priority should be to get our metabolism revved up, by pushing how many calories you can eat while maintaining your current weight. This will give us way more of a toolbox to work with as we progress in your fat loss journey.
There are going to be ebbs and flows. You’ll have weeks where you are consistently losing and then you may plateau. Throughout your diet you may have several instances where you need to lower your calories by 200-300 to get out of the plateau so it behooves us to give us a longer runway. For instance, if you are starting your diet at 2,000 calories as a male, then where can we lower you to after you hit your plateau? Men I don’t generally advise getting below 1,800 and women 1,500 calories. If you have to go lower than that for an extended period of time it means you either didn’t build up your calorie bank, and at that low of calories, start risking hormonal issues, and a very slow metabolism in which your body will start eating away at hard earned muscle. Muscle is calorically expensive to maintain. If we don’t have enough calories coming in, you will start to lose it along with your fat.
Drop From Calories Before Adding Cardio
If instead, you spent some time building your metabolism up to 2,900-3,000 calories as a male or 2,500 calories as a female, you can now begin your fat loss journey from a higher caloric intake making the journey both more tolerable, and maintain the physique you’ve worked so hard to achieve. So this should be your number one focus above cardio and anything else.
We generally like to start a diet from a deficit of 500 calories a day below maintenance. I find most people do well taking most of this from their food intake, because then it doesn’t require as many physical day to day changes to their normal life. You are going about your day the same way, except just being more aware to eat less.
Hit Your Step Count
An alternative approach for those who don’t want to take that big a hit on their caloric intake can be to instead of directly adding a cardio session, to just shoot for a target step count. I find 10,000 steps is a good starting point as I’ve found most of my clients only averaging 6-8,000 steps.
What I like about this approach versus just hopping on the treadmill is it changes your approach to this new lifestyle. After all, in order to achieve and more importantly maintain the body you want, you are going to have to implement habits you can keep up with. By setting a goal of 10,000 steps, your focus now becomes behavior based. Find moments throughout your day to get up and move and be active. The beauty of this is that this is something we should be doing for overall health anyways, not just diet. We should WANT to find moments to get up and move and not just be sitting. It also isn’t a healthy mindset to look at caloric expenditure solely as a means to lose weight. This is how people become body dysmorphic, and obsess over getting their 45 minutes on the treadmill.
What usually inevitably happens for the majority of the people is some hybrid of the two. They’ll shoot for 10,000 steps while dropping maybe 200-300 calories to create that 500 caloric deficit each day. This is ideal for those who prefer to “take a little bit from each” approach versus all or nothing. Ultimately you need to find what works best for you. Again, depending on your weight loss goal, whether its steps or calories, you may find yourself hitting a plateau, in which case you may need to lower calories by 200-300, or add 3,000 more steps.
Use Additional Cardio as a Tool
At some point your step count may get so high that you find you struggle to hit it by sprinkling it throughout your day. NOW is when it is a good time to add in direct cardio. Think of it as a supplement. We take vitamins when we find we aren’t able to achieve the recommended dosage by whole food alone. If you’ve built yourself up to 15,000+ steps, some direct cardio may be needed to hit the goal and that’s totally fine. I suggest finding forms of cardio you enjoy; it doesn't just have to be at the gym. You can play a sport, or play with your kids.