Is there an exact number of how much cardio to lose weight?
As always, there are levels. There are levels to exercise. Specifically, when it comes to cardio. There’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to do it if you want to use it as a tool for weight loss.
I try to mention this as much as I can in a lot of my videos that you shouldn’t rely on cardio to lose weight.
Because you’re majoring in the minor when you do this. Especially if you’re focusing on counting the calories burned on your hour long session on the treadmill. And the calories you burned that shows on the screen may or may not even be accurate.
How Much Cardio To Lose Weight?
Here’s the truth about cardio.
A lot of people are still under the belief that you need to do it in order to lose weight. The problem is, most people hate cardio. I’m one of those people.
Whenever I go for a run, about 2 minutes in, I start questioning my life decisions.
But the common assumption is that you need to do it. And you see the same people on the treadmill, the elliptical, or the stair master every day hating their lives. Or maybe they just don’t know any better.
And women, especially, are more susceptible to this because they don’t want to lift weights. It’s still a common misconception that the moment you pick up a pair of dumbbells, you’re going to turn into the Incredible Hulk.
No. That takes years of hard work and strict dieting. But that’s usually why people stay in the cardio machine area doing the same boring thing every day.
The truth about doing traditional cardio
But the truth is, standard cardio like running 5 miles every day, rowing, the elliptical, StairMaster, or going to spin every day is not necessary for fat loss. You don’t need to do those things to be healthy.
What I’m trying to say is you don’t need to do traditional cardio to lose weight an get abs. No. You don’t need it.
But doing traditional cardio to lose weight is still considered conventional wisdom. But not only is it unnecessary for fat loss, it’s actually not ideal.
And that’s the main point that I want to make. I’m not saying you should never do it. It’s great for your cardiovascular health in small doses. And we’ll talk about frequency and different levels of intensity in a second here. Because you can bet that there are levels to this.
By the way, I’m not saying you can’t lose some weight doing cardio. You can. Initially. Just like you can lose a bunch of weight if you just cut calories. But the human body is an amazing thing and it’s very good at adapting to whatever you’re throwing at it. It’s an adaptation machine.
And if you’re a chronic cardio exerciser. I don’t even know if exerciser is an actual word. But if you’re someone who sweats their hearts out on their favourite cardio machine every day. Or you’re an avid runner or jogger and you ain’t losing weight. The pounds ain’t coming off?
In fact, you’re actually starting to see a muffin top developing around your waist. And you’re starting to look like a pear? I want you to pay attention.
The problem with chronic cardio
Your body adapts to chronic cardio in two not so great ways. Number one, it triggers the overcompensation effect. If you think about the calories in vs calories model that’s also considered conventional wisdom. As if the human body is just a mathematical equation. It’s not. It’s not that simple. You need to factor in hormone optimization. But I’ll humour you on this.
The thinking is that if you increase the calories out part of the equation by running for an hour. Let’s say you burned 500 calories. The thinking is that you just created a 500 calorie deficit and the calories in part of the equation stays stable. If you do this every day, you’re gonna lose a pound a week and you’re gonna lose 52 pounds in one year and we all lived happily ever after.
No. It does not work like that. Because the calories in part of the does not stay stable. Your metabolism for example can go up or down by as much as 40%.
And as you burn more calories, you also eat more calories. If you increase calories out, the calories in goes up as well because it triggers an increase in your appetite. That’s show the human body works. It’s also now been scientifically proven that the calories burned during exercise does not translate to fat burned in the human body.
That’s why I always say that exercise has many benefits. But weight loss isn’t one of them.
The other thing about the overcompensation effect is again let’s use 500 calories burned on your hour long run. People look at that and think they can eat a 500 calorie donut and they’ll just cancel each other out. No. It does not work like that. Eating refined carbs and sugar and cardio triggers completely different metabolic pathways in your body.
Chronic cardio = Chronic stress
The other way that your body adapts if you’re a chronic cardio exerciser is that it results in chronically high cortisol levels. That’s your stress hormone secreted by the adrenal gland. Also known as your fight or flight hormone.
You gotta remember that exercise is a type of stress. Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot of benefits to hormetic stress for example like taking cold showers. If you’ve never tried it, it’s interesting.
It’s when that stress becomes chronic that it really starts to become a big problem. You can definitely have too much of a good thing. And doing cardio falls in that category. This is when we go from standard cardio being unnecessary to weight loss to doing chronic cardio being detrimental to your health. Yup. It’s bad for you. Like, really bad.
So every time you put stress in your body, and this is a hard wired genetic response through 2.5 million years of evolution, the hormone cortisol gets released.
During the Paleolithic times, stress usually meant that our ancestors were being chased by a sabre tooth tiger or we’re about to fight it. So this is your fight or flight response. Again, short term stress? No problem.
It’s when the stress becomes chronic where it starts to become detrimental. Because one of cortisol jobs is to flood your body with glucose so you have immediate usable energy right away to fight or flight.
But if you do cardio every day then that stress becomes chronic. Which means you also have chronically high cortisol levels.
Chronic stress = Chronic inflammation
And chronically high cortisol levels leads to chronically high insulin levels. That’s your storing hormone.
One of it’s main jobs is to store all that excess glucose in your body as fat. Because too much glucose in your blood is toxic. And where does it get stored? Around your belly.
The bigger problem is chronically high insulin levels leads to systemic inflammation. And that opens up Pandora’s box to all sorts of disease including auto immune and cardiovascular disease. It’s not uncommon for endurance athletes to become pre diabetic or fully diabetic for example.
So imagine that. You’re doing cardio every day because you want to lose weight and be healthy. But if you do it too much, it could actually make you fat and sick.
Long story short, doing traditional cardio is not ideal for fat loss because your body adapts to it. And if you do it too much, it can even be detrimental to your health.
What should you do instead?
So if cardio isn’t ideal for weight loss. Then what is? Two words. Resistance training (ie. lifting weights).
Because it allows you to build muscle, cardio doesn’t do that, which is the key driver of your metabolism. Having a lot of lean muscle mass is also a very strong marker for lifespan.
Cardio compared to resistance training also sends two completely different signals to your body. Cardio is catabolic. It’s a state when the body, starved of nutrients, begins to feed on itself in order to acquire the energy it needs.
While resistance training is anabolic. Which means it builds. It promotes lean muscle growth by triggering anabolic hormones like testosterone, IGF-1, and growth hormone.
A lot of experts actually consider growth hormone the real fountain of youth because of its anti aging effects. Intermittent fasting is also a great way to increase growth hormones.
Chronic cardio is the opposite. It ages you like no other because it’s way too stressful to your body.
Muscle is also a very energy expensive tissue. It requires more calories to maintain. It also requires a lot of calories when you’re building muscle. The side effect of it being it makes you look good shirtless.
So the more muscle you have and the more muscle you’re actively trying to build, the more calories your body needs. Again, that’s why having a lot of lean muscle is the key driver of your metabolism. And you build muscle through resistance training.
Yes, your body does adapt to lifting weights. But there are so many variables you can change so your body never gets used to it.
With cardio, you can only increase the speed, distance, and the duration. That’s why it’s so inefficient. Imagine having to run a half marathon every day and I just mentioned why that’s really bad for you.
But with lifting, the possibilities are endless. You can increase your reps, your sets, you can reduce your rest. You can lift heavier weights. This is why CrossFit became a global phenomenon because it blends all the things I just mentioned in a super fun way. I’m a little biased because I do CrossFit and I love it.
And anybody who’s done a 5 minute CrossFit metcon, that’s short for metabolic conditioning, will tell you that it’s a different animal when it comes to training. Because the workouts are different every day. And I’m gonna link…
Would you rather do a half hour cardio workout? Or a 5-10 minute super intense workout and trigger beneficial anabolic hormones.
And that’s the other thing about resistance training is that it also increases your heart rate. It is a cardiovascular workout. Just like traditional cardio.
Just think of it this way. When you do cardio, you’re only burning calories when you’re doing it. And it’s so easy to erase whatever benefit you get from it if you eat a donut.
With resistance training, you’re breaking down muscle while you’re working out which burns calories, and your body has to keep burning calories to repair those muscles afterwards. This is called the after burn effect.
The take away here is you should do resistance training, CrossFit or CrossFit style workouts are my favourite, to build muscle because it’s anabolic. Think less, but better. Any exercise program you do should always revolve around movement and building muscle.
Traditional cardio vs low intensity cardio
Now, I just wanna do a little housekeeping here. I’m not saying you should never do cardio. If you love it, do it. But don’t do it every day. Once or twice a week? It’s great accessory work. Again, it’s when you keep doing it every day and it’s all you do for exercise where it becomes a problem.
Now, there is a world of difference between doing traditional cardio for exercise. Again, I’m talking about running, jogging, stairmaster, elliptical, rowing, doing Spin classes which I don’t understand. Like why would you pay $200 a month to sit on a stationary bike and listen to loud music?
There is a world of difference between traditional cardio and low intensity cardio. Your body responds differently to high or medium level intensity vs low intensity. Like, walking.
Because walking almost guarantees to keep you below your maximum aerobic heart rate. That’s where you get maximum aerobic benefits with minimum anaerobic stimulation.
Translation? Staying below your maximum aerobic heart rate is where your body is mainly using fatty acids for energy. This is the “fat burning zone”.
This is why I always say there are levels to this. There is a right way and a wrong way to use cardio for weight loss and improve your health.
How to do cardio properly
That’s why I always advocate for getting 10,000 steps every day because it does two things.
Number one again is it almost guarantees to keep you below your maximum aerobic heart rate. And if you want to know how to calculate it, you just take 180 minus your age. And that gives you your number in beats per minute. Credit to Dr. Phil Maffetone for this equation. It’s called the MAF equation. For example, I’m 33, so 180 minus 33 gives me 147 beats per minute.
And I want to stay below that number whenever I go for a walk or do my low intensity cardio. By the way, you can also do other types of cardio like cycling or rowing for this. As long as you stay below your maximum aerobic heartrate. This is crucial. You can get a fitness tracker with a heart rate monitor if you really wanna be precise with this and they’re usually pretty cheap these days. Or you can go old school and just measure your heart rate manually.
But once you start doing these low intensity cardio sessions, you’re gonna be surprised how easy they are. A good rule of thumb as well is the breathing test. You should be able to breath through your nose during these easy cardio sessions.
And you’re gonna be tempted to exceed your maximum aerobic heart rate because you think it’s too easy. You don’t wanna do that. That defeats the purpose of doing it. Not every workout needs to be a near death experience for it to be effective.
Because once you go past your maximum aerobic heart rate, then that’s when you start burning a mix of fat and glucose. That’s when the sugar cravings start after your cardio session. Notice how you’re always cravings carbs after doing cardio?
And that’s also when you start to trigger a cortisol response. Again, short term stress? Not a bad thing. Chronic stress resulting in systemic inflammation? Losing weight should be the least of your concerns.
The benefits of walking 10,000 steps a day
The other benefit of getting 10,000 steps, ideally spread throughout the day, is it forces you to avoid prolonged periods where you’re completely sedentary.
Because nothing shuts down your fat burning metabolism faster than prolonged periods where you’re not moving. It also increases your risk of chronic disease tenfold.
By the way, that’s another side effect of people that do chronic cardio. You turn into a couch potato after your workout because you think you’ve already fulfilled your physical movement goal for the day. You don’t want that because that means you’re still living a mostly sedentary lifestyle.
I want you to look at these low intensity cardio sessions as just a chance to go for a leisurely walk and just be with yourself. Notice your surroundings. You get some fresh air. It’s also a great way to relax and lower your stress levels. This is the opposite of excessive cardio sessions where you’re completely dead afterwards.
Bonus points if you also get some sun on your skin whenever you go for these walks. Aim to get at least 20-30 minutes and expose as much of your skin as possible.
Morning sun is ideal to get some much needed vitamin D in your body. This is important because most people in North America, or if you live away from the equator, are vitamin D deficient. There’s a reason why it’s called the sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D is actually more of a hormone and it’s extremely important when it comes to facilitating normal immune function which keeps your body healthy and happy.
And if you don’t have a step counter, just try to accumulate at least an hour of purposeful walking on top of your workouts and general movement inside your house. That almost guarantees to put you over 10,000 steps. I personally go for 3 separate walks every day on top of my workouts. If I’m not working out that day, I go for extra long walks.
And this is how we evolved as human beings. We evolved to move. This promotes optimal gene expression. We did not evolve to run or sit on a stationary bike every day.
Sprinting: An advanced fat loss strategy
We would sprint every once in a while when we’re hunting or when we’re being hunted. But that’s usually done in short little bursts of all out max effort. Which by the way can be unbelievably beneficial to your body.
Because there’s a world of difference between long duration running and doing full out sprints for a few rounds for 10-15 seconds. Because sprinting raises MET to 30. MET stands for metabolic equivalent of task. Your MET for sitting on the couch watching Netflix is 1 just for reference.
But your body has to work 30 times harder to support this crazy activity that you’re doing. Sprinting is a hormetic type of stress and one of the main benefits that gets triggered is accelerated fat burning. Because your body sees fat as something that’s slowing you down and it gets immediate top billing as something it needs to get rid of.
Like I said, there are levels. There are levels to exercise. There are levels when it comes to doing cardio. Exercise is all about general movement and building muscle, not counting calories. Just remember that your diet is still king in all of this. 80% of your body composition is determined by what you put in your mouth. Just think of cardio as one of your many tools in your weight loss tool box. Use it wisely.
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