Its almost January First when people start their New Years fitness resolutions by flocking to gyms and doing cardio. The problem is that recent research indicates that for most people this is precisely the wrong approach. Doing cardio can make you fat but its also the #1 most important thing you can do for your health. Bodybuilders have known for decades that “abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym” but this information has not filtered to the general population. When it comes to fat loss, the hours on the treadmill would be much better spent shopping, cooking, and freezing home cooked meals for the upcoming week. Why is this? Lots of reasons!
Research indicates cardio is of little benefit for weight loss
My 35 years of being in bodybuilding has taught me about cardio and fat loss but its not just my experience, there is a lot of research to back me up here which shows that fat loss comes from nutrition, not exercise.
Reasons why cardio alone does not work for weight loss
1) The jaw is the mightiest muscle in the body
Contrary to popular belief, the strongest muscle in the body is not the heart, the quads, or the pecs – it’s the jaw! I do lots of multi-week bike treks when I bike 10-14 hours a day – that is a LOT of cardio. Even when doing that much cardio it is VERY easy gain fat! In 30 minutes my jaw can eat more food than my body can burn off in 12 hours of intense biking. It is a very simple matter to out eat your cardio and gain fat, no matter how much cardio you do. You can lose fat without doing cardio but you will NEVER lose fat without watching what you eat.
2) The entitlement mentality
One of the big problems with doing cardio to lose fat is that it gives people a feeling of entitlement. “I did XXX minutes do I DESERVE a slice of pizza”. I can guarantee you that anyone with this attitude will never be healthy and lean again. What they dont realize is that for years or decades they have eaten more than they deserve which is the reason they are obese now. The reward was eaten long ago, its not time to pay for it and there is no way around this. Many people fall into this entitlement mentality and its just one of the reasons that cardio for fat loss is not effective. If you are not doing cardio then its 100% clear that you MUST watch very carefully what you eat, every day of every week of every month. The other issue with people who use lots of cardio as an excuse to eat more is that cardio increases appetite.
3) Doing a lot of cardio increases your appetite
My experience has shown that doing a lot of cardio can actually counter productive to fat loss because it increases appetite out of proportion with the extra calories being exercised off. When people exercise, they tend to over estimate their exercise and eat more when they do cardio. My experience is that strenuous cardio in excess of 45min exercise starts to increase appetite. If you want to be safe, make it 20 or 30 minutes. Note too that we are talking huffing, puffing, and sweat dripping cardio here not walking or leisurely cardio.
4) Exercise actually requires very few calories
The human body is highly evolved and part of what gave us an evolutionary advantage was our huge brain. Being a mammal is very expensive calorically and having a big brain is even more expensive. Even if you sit on the sofa all day long and literally do not raise a finger, you burn off an incredible amount of calories. Doing strenuous cardio does not raise the daily caloric needs as much as you would expect. Doing easy cardio hardly affects your daily burn rate at all.
Ways to lose fat
People try to make this complicated or create make up science here when its really quite simple. A consistent caloric deficit is what is required to lose fat. If you are not losing fat then you do not have a caloric deficit and you need to consume fewer calories, period. There is no disease on the planet where you have to eat more to lose fat. Note that it can take a month of careful daily weighings to know for sure if you are losing weight or not. There are three methods you can use to lose fat:
- watch what you eat and do cardio
- watch what you eat and lift weights
- watch what you eat
do cardioNope! Alone, this does not work!
In other words, the ONLY way you are going to lose fat is to watch what you eat! Previously I had said that losing fat is 90% nutrition and 10% cardio but new research has changed my views. I now say that fat loss is 99% nutrition and 1% cardio.
So cardio is bad for you?
No! Cardio is still the #1 most important thing you can do to improve your health! Its just that it can get in the way of fat loss!
Weight lifting and fat loss
There is a reason that resistance training is recommended as a vital part of a weight loss program, its because muscle is metabolically expensive. What I mean by this is that even if you just sit on the sofa all day, it costs a lot more calories for the body to maintain a pound of muscle than a pound of fat. The more muscle you build, the higher your metabolic rate and the more food you can eat while still staying lean. This is also why people who crash diet as part of their New Years Resolutions fail miserably. When you cut your calories more than about 25%, you burn off muscle in addition to fat and you simply cannot afford to lose muscle.
If your goal is …
- Only fat loss , then set up a free account at custommealplanner and use a 25% caloric deficit, no cheat days ever, and do not do any cardio – use your cardio time to batch cook healthy meals.
- Maximizing athletic performance for sports then do 5-15 hours of cardio a week. Maximize performance by doing both interval training and endurance work but do not lose sight of the big picture and “train like you race”.
- To get fit with a minimum of time then do strenuous cardio like jogging or biking up hills three times a week for 30-40 minutes.
- To lose fat and get healthy with a minimum of time as possible then do three quick full body workouts a week, do three ability-appropriate cardio sessions of 30 min each a week and set up a free account at custommealplanner and use a 25% caloric deficit.