Did you know there is a better solution to cardio than spending hours on end on the “dreadmill”?
When we are chasing fat loss goals, we tend to default to what we know – logging endless hours on the elliptical aka lots of steady state cardio. Cardio (or aerobic) exercise is basically any exercise that lifts your heart rate. It usually results in a high calorie burn, which is why it’s so appealing to so many. We see those 600-800 numbers on our fitness trackers and think “SCORE, what a deficit!” While yes, we burn a lot of calories with steady state cardio, we also experience a number of unpleasant side effects at the same time:
- Hormones – marathon runners often gain weight during training, thanks to the imbalance of their leptin hormones. Leptin is the hormone that sends signals to our brain to stop eating when we’re full. Steady state cardio causes these hormones to drop, which leads to increased artificial feelings of hunger. While yes, we do need more calories when we are burning more, we often end up eating even more than what we need with regular steady state cardio thanks to this effect.
Additionally, excess cardio can cause muscle loss (more below.) When muscle is lost, insulin sensitivity is decreased. The insulin is less likely to go towards building and sustaining muscle, and excess glucose in the system can be stored as fat.
- Muscle loss – fat loss and weight loss are not the same thing. Often, when people say they want to lose weight, they actually want to lose fat. No one actually wants to lose their muscle mass, right?
By focusing on weight loss, and using steady state cardio to do so, we lose muscle and fat at the same time. So, we end up a lighter version of our preexisting body composition, at the same body fat percentage.
Excess cardio puts your body into a catabolic state (breaking down larger molecules into smaller ones, such as fat cells into fatty acids, etc.) and causes muscle loss. The loss of muscle will also affect your metabolism, causing it to work less efficiently than it did with the increased muscle mass. This means less calories burned at rest, resulting in the body needing less calories to function daily. Losing gains AND the ability to eat more food? No thanks.
- “Overtraining” – overtraining is the common phrase used for too much exercise when really the focus should be on “under recovery.” The body needs time to recover; otherwise, it won’t perform effectively, and gains will be lost. It’s easy to over train when engaging in steady state cardio – hours and hours a day? The body won’t like that.
Symptoms of “overtraining” or under recovery can include fatigue/energy loss, disrupted sleep, increased hunger/cravings, bloat, inability to hit PR’s, injuries, etc. Taking rest days, incorporating restorative activities like yoga and walking, and hitting protein goals all help with muscle recovery.
With all of this, it might seem like all cardio is bad. But that’s not the case. Think about training smarter, not more. Some ideas on how to build a more effective workout program:
- HIIT – high intensity interval training. HIIT is also known as anaerobic training, where we spike the heart rate to intense levels for short periods of time (85% or above maximum heart rate) followed by periods of recovery, bringing the heart rate back down to 65%. HIIT has no shortage of benefits such as increased EPOC (Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption aka burning calories after the workout is over), increased fat loss, and increased production of HGH (human growth hormone to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.) As with anything, too much of a good thing can reduce these benefits, so stick to 1-2x a week.
- Strength training – strength training increases muscle mass, which results in increased insulin sensitivity and an increased resting metabolism. It will also help preserve any lean muscle mass while staying in a caloric deficit, so when pursuing fat loss results, strength training is a MUST.
- Metabolic conditioning – lift weights, but faster. Think AMRAP (as many reps as possible) or EMOM (Every Minute on the Minute.) Still lifting weights but adding the elevated heart rate component. Most MetCon workouts are super short and simple and can be done anywhere. It differs from HIIT in that HIIT focuses on small bursts of effort (20 seconds to 2 minutes) done interval style, and MetCons are usually rounds or circuits at a high intensity for 20-30 minutes with minimal rest.
If you love cardio, by all means, go for it 1-2x a week but try not to do it much more than that. If you’re truly looking for body composition change and to build lean muscle mass for fat loss, prioritize the other stuff first and fit in cardio only if you can.