If you’re like most of us, cardio is your frenemy.
Of course, cardio — running, swimming, cycling, rowing or brisk walking — can make you feel amazing.
But we get it: sometimes it can be a total drag.
This is especially true if you are trying to lose weight.
Putting in hours on a treadmill or a spin bike can help keep your heart strong, but will all that work translate to a lower number on the scale?
We asked Trevor Thiem, CSCS, Beachbody’s director of fitness and nutrition content, to get the real details on the role of cardio in weight loss.
Should I do cardio to lose weight?
Here’s the good news: no. You don’t have to do cardio to lose weight.
So why is most of the common weight-loss advice out there (and is a lot) suggest walking 10,000 steps a day or an hour of spin class three times a week?
Traditionally, weight-loss recommendations have been built around the “calories in, calories out” concept.
This theory revolves around the idea that one pound of fat contains about 3,500 calories.
Following this theory, if you burn 500 more calories a day than you consume, you can lose a pound of fat a week.
Not so easy without math. (sorry/not sorry).
Studies show that although cardiovascular exercise can help keep our hearts and lungs healthy, cardio alone isn’t a good way to prevent obesity, and you can’t guarantee weight loss by burning 500 calories more than you consume each day.
“Strength training may be more effective for fat loss than steady-state cardio because it keeps your metabolism elevated for longer post-workout, [thus] helps you burn more total calories,” says Thiem.
The scientific name for the phenomenon he’s referring to is “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption,” or EPOC, but you can think of it as workout recovery.
The more intense and challenging a workout, the more metabolic stress and cellular micro-damage will occur, and the longer and more extensive recovery will be.
The longer and more extensive the recovery, the more energy required and the more calories you burn as a result of the workout.
A 2003 scientific review of research on EPOC found that heavy resistance training produced the greatest EPOC compared to cycling or circuit training.
In fact, when it comes to fat loss, there’s only one type of cardio that can beat strength training…
What type of cardio is best for weight loss?
You don’t have to do cardio to lose weight, but you do to be able to Use it as a tool in an overall weight-loss plan — and you don’t even have to log hours in your running shoes to see results.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio is effective for fat loss for the same reason that strength training is effective: it produces a higher sustained EPOC than steady-state cardio activities such as jogging or walking.
One HIIT style — known as Tabata — is so intense that it can be done in about four minutes, often without the need for any equipment.
“Exercise intensity is more important than duration,” Thieme says. “You can lose more fat doing 20 minutes of HIIT than you do an hour of steady-state cardio.”
The catch is that you have to be fit enough to do HIIT.
“If you’re new to working out, this can increase your risk of overtraining and injury,” Thieme says. “So build a strong fitness foundation with steady-state cardio and strength training before you try HIIT.”
How much cardio should I do to lose weight?
Unfortunately, there is no magic number when it comes to doing cardio to help you lose weight.
This depends on several factors, including your current fitness level, the type of cardio you’re doing, and whether your training plan includes strength training (which it should).
Generally speaking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you do no more than 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity to maintain weight.
“But all that exercise doesn’t matter if you’re eating more calories than you’re burning off,” Thieme says, nodding to the popular axiom about not being able to exercise—outside of a bad diet.
“Successful, long-term fat loss requires both a healthy diet And A challenging exercise program.”
Bottom line on cardio for weight loss
Don’t rely solely on steady-state cardio for weight loss.
If you’re a beginner exerciser and your goal is weight loss, you can start with steady-state cardio, but you’ll likely need to incorporate strength training and/or move up to a more intense form of cardio (like HIIT) to continue your loss.
“And, of course, you need to pay equal attention to the other side of the equation—your diet and eating habits,” says Thiem.
Heed this advice – and be consistent – and you can achieve significant weight loss.