Happy Tuesday everyone!
I hear a lot of talk about cardio from my clients at Panthro Fitness, especially when we begin a gym-wide weight loss challenge. Everyone all of a sudden feels like they need to go for a run after their workout, or slave away on the elliptical for an hour every day to lose weight.
Is cardio beneficial for your overall health? Hellllll to the yes. Can cardio help you lose some weight? Absolutely. Do you NEED cardio to lose weight? Not necessarily. Can your cardio become ineffective and less efficient over time? YES. Let me explain.
First, we need to understand what factors affect our bodies’ ability to burn energy (aka, calories). There are several equations out there, but most of them are very similar, so let’s take a look at this one:
Calories Burned = [(AGE X 0.074) + (WEIGHT X 0.09036) + (HEART RATE X 0.6309) – 55.0969] X (DURATION OF EXERCISE/4.184)
Calories Burned = [(AGE X 0.074) + (WEIGHT X 0.05741) + (HEART RATE X 0.4472) – 20.4022] X (DURATION OF EXERCISE/4.184)
Now let’s look closer at those equations. Your total calorie expenditure for a workout is dependent on your age, weight, heart rate, and duration of exercise. Let’s specifically talk about heart rate…
According to this equation, heart rate has a direct correlation to the number of calories you burn, meaning, the higher your heart rate is during exercise, the more calories you burn. For instance, if I were to go on a 3-mile run right now, my heart rate would be incredibly high because my body is not used to running at all… as in, I haven’t run over a mile at one time in over a year, but I digress. As a result, I’ll probably burn a decently large number of calories during that run. However, let’s say I do that same 3-mile run, 4 times a week for the next 3 weeks. Because the muscles I’m using for that run are getting stronger, my body begins to adapt to the level of intensity, and consequently, my heart rate isn’t nearly as high as the first time I completed that run. Because my heart rate isn’t as high as it was before, I’m burning less calories for the same exact run.
Our bodies are incredibly smart and efficient, and while this is awesome (yay, science!), it also sucks for weight loss. Because your body begins to adapt to a cardio routine, it’ll be harder and harder to elevate your heart rate for the same exercise routine time after time. To burn more calories for the same exact workout, you have to either A) increase the intensity of what you’re doing, or B) increase the duration/frequency of the exercise you’re doing. Without realizing this, most people fall into the “cardio trap” – they initially lose weight from adding in some cardio, but once their body adapts, they do more and more of the same cardio until it adapts again, then they do MORE cardio, etc. Before you know it, you’re taking hour-long spin classes five times a week and wondering why the heck you aren’t losing weight.
So what exactly should you do with cardio? Let cardio be a tool for weight loss, but not your main tool. It is completely fine to add some cardio into your routine (in fact, it’s important for overall cardiovascular health), but be smart about it. Start with the weight loss basics – get your diet on track and start on a strength training routine/program (if you aren’t already on one.) After you master your diet and you’ve been consistently strength training and emphasizing compound movements, maybe add in one or two 15-minute cardio sessions for the first 2-3 weeks in the form of incline walking, elliptical, or whatever your heart desires. After that, raise those two, 15-minute sessions to 20-minutes each for the next few weeks. In another 2 or 3 weeks, you might increase those sessions to 30 minutes each. Maybe after that, you scale it back down to two, 15-minute sessions again, but this time you perform HIIT (high intensity interval training) instead of steady state cardio. By slowly introducing various duration, intensities, and types of cardio activity into your schedule, you keep your body guessing and essentially “less efficient” at adapting to your cardio routine. Because your body is LESS efficient at adapting, it will burn MORE calories during your cardio.
Just a small note – depending on your fitness goals, your type and amount of cardio will vary. A person training for a marathon obviously wants their body to adapt to running so they don’t feel like death when they attempt 26.2 miles. In this post, I’m specifically referring to the average person trying to lose a little weight, not to elite athletes, marathon runners, or people who just enjoy cardio for fitness-sake.
Cardio is not inherently bad. In fact, it’s an important part of maintaining your cardiovascular health. However, it can definitely propel people into a vicious cycle of eating too much and trying to “burn off” what they ate with more and more cardio. So remember, you don’t NEED cardio to lose weight, but use it as a tool for weight loss, not as a punishment for eating too much. Be smart about it. Keep diet and heavy strength training as the main ingredients to your weight-loss sundae, and save cardio as the little sprinkle of cherries on top. (I realize the absurdity of that sentence, but I had to throw some kind of ice-cream reference in there.)
I hope this post wasn’t too long and draining – have an amazing Tuesday!
What is your favorite type of cardio?