When I walk into the 24 Hour Fitness on Ocean Ave I greatly admire those people who are on the cardio machines.
I give them lots of credit to be able to hack the cardio workout at the gym.
You know those men and women running their Nth mile on the treadmill or Grandma cycling on the elliptical while watching her second episode of House Hunters on HGTV.
Something I cannot relate to because I cannot do more than 20 minutes of cardio at a time and it’s not even using a machine. If I stick to a cardio machine for more than 5 minutes my mind drives me crazy over the monotonous movement.
So I really admire those hard core cardio folks who can just push through the repetitive action.
Unfortunately, those who continue to do only cardio long-term have the worst looking bodies in the gym and at the end of the year are weaker and have less muscle mass for it.
Why cardio is not your long term solution to weight loss
I think cardio is very important for cardiovascular health and building endurance but anymore than 30 to 45 minutes of low intensity steady-state cardio at a time is useless unless you’re training for an endurance event or losing a tremendous amount of weight like 30 plus lbs.
And even if you are looking to lose 30 plus pounds there are more efficient exercises to do in the gym that are more time efficient.
Slogging away on a cardio machine is not one of them and let me explain why
There are only two ways to drop those extra pounds
When you’re looking to lose weight there are only two ways to impact the number on the scale:
- eating less total calories
In order to lose weight your body needs to burn more calories than what you’re eating in a day. It’s like this,
Calories in < Calories burn = weight loss
Without getting in the nitty gritty specifics you need to move more and eat less which means eating healthier for most cases.
Yes, you can be eating super clean and have the scale not move at all because you’re eating TOO MUCH healthy foods.
I have had this happen to clients before who announce to me they eat super clean but they don’t lose any weight. They were simply eating an excess amount of calories.
It’s CALORIES that count not how HEALTHY you eat. But for the most part eating healthy translates to less calorie dense foods.
You can certainly lose weight by eating your calories from MacDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts but I don’t recommend it.
Eat like crap, feel like crap. (But if you’re curious about the professor who did a diet of Twinkies and powdered donuts and still lost weight you can read about it here.)
This is why it’s important to figure out how many calories your body burns right now and factor in how you workout to determine how many calories you need to eat to lose weight.
Without a number in mind you’re just shooting in the dark and guessing.
The second factor in losing weight is exercise and it’s an added bonus on top of your current metabolism.
Obviously when you are running on the treadmill your body increases the amount of calories it burns.
And let me just say that the number of calories the machine says you’re burned so far is 100% inaccurate. It doesn’t take into account your height and your age which impacts many calories you’re burning.
Why cardio stops working to help you lose weight
This is where people get confused.
Do you ever hit the wall where you just stop losing weight with just doing cardio? You’ve increased the amount of steady state cardio you're doing and how many days you’re doing it.
Your diet has not changed and the amount that you’re eating hasn’t changed. But the scale just stopped moving?
There are several reasons why you’ve plateaued,
1. Your body is smart and very adaptive.
The amount of calories it took you to run 5 miles on the treadmill at Month 1 will be less in Month 2. Your body has become more efficient at doing the same amount of work.
Why burn more calories than it needs to?
This means is you’re essentially burning less calories as you continue to do more cardio. To boost your calorie burn you will have to do a SIGNIFICANT amount of more cardio than before.
This could look like doubling your cardio time or ramping up the intensity level. You need to increase the stress level your body experiences in order for it to burn more calories.
2. You keep eating the same amount
When you start to lose weight the amount of calories you are eating needs to change. People tend to keep eating the same amount of calories that caused them to lose weight in the first place causing them to stall later on.
When you start to lose weight your body requires less calories to maintain its body weight. To break through your plateau you need to decrease your calories to continue losing weight.
Now there is a limit to this because your body wants to keep you alive. You cannot keep eating less and less without your body’s survival instinct kicking leading to extreme ravenous hunger.
At this point you need to change strategies to keep making progress.
3. Muscle wastage.
Lastly, an excessive amount of steady state cardio leads to muscle loss.
Muscle is a biologically active tissue that burns more calories versus fat. When you continue to do long stretches of cardio your body only keeps the muscle necessary for you to perform whatever cardio workouts you’re doing.
You’ve lost muscle with excess cardio so at rest you’re burning less calories everyday.
When you decrease your metabolism the only way to lose weight now is not just continuation of more and more cardio but also eating less and less calories.
That is the problem with just cardio only workouts because you cannot keep eating less.
You’ll find that if you don’t include strength training in your workouts that the moment you get off your diet the pounds will come straight back.
This leads to the inability of your body to handle and burn off the extra calories off your diet therefore the number on the scale will go right back up in a matter of months.
This is why you need to include progressive strength training to build muscle if you want to keep the pounds off.
Not only does muscle burn more calories but 1 pound of muscle takes up less space than 1 pound of fat thereby slimming you down.
So if you’re serious about losing weight and keeping it off for the rest of your life you need to include strength training as part of your workouts.
To sum it up
Here’s why low intensity steady-state cardio workouts alone won’t help you lose weight,
- Adaptation. Your body quickly adapts to the cardio you do so over time you will burn less calories with the same workouts.
- Temporary metabolism boost. Your metabolism resets back to normal the moment you get off the elliptical/treadmill/stairmaster.
- Muscle loss. Excess cardio will cause you to lose muscle leading to a lower metabolism at rest.
So if cardio is great for cardiovascular health and the calorie burn on running away on the treadmill diminishes over time then what kind of cardio should you be doing?
I'll cover that in my next article.