Cardio & Weight Loss: The Issue & The Solution
“Lose weight and tone up”. If I had a dime for every time someone told me that’s what their goal was at the gym, I’d be retired and in the Caribbean right now. The majority of people in this country that join a gym/fitness center do so because they are looking to pursue this goal. Unfortunately, most people never wind up achieving this goal. I see new member after new member toil away for untold hours on every piece of cardio equipment we have, only to see very little return for their efforts. They either lose very little weight, no weight, or worse, GAIN weight. What is everyone doing wrong? I’ll tell you...they’re doing "cardio."
Why Steady State Cardio Doesn’t Work
I don’t know where, or how, it started. But, somewhere, the myth began that performing steady-state cardiovascular exercise was the key to burning unwanted body fat. Regardless of how it started, doing cardio to lose weight has become the most horrifically misleading fitness myth ever….well, maybe not THE most, but it’s definitely a top 3 contender.
Luckily, a lot of well-structured and controlled studies have been done in the last ten years that have conclusively proven that not only is steady state cardio an ineffective means of body fat reduction, but it also has other negative health implications.
Proven to be Ineffective
Steady-state cardio has been proven time and again that it is not only ineffective in body fat loss, but actually promotes body fat gain rather than loss. I’ll get more into that later.
Let’s look at what I think is one of the best (and most relevant) studies done about the effects of steady-state cardio on fat loss. In this study (McTiernan et al., 2008), subjects regularly performed 60 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, 6 days a week for an entire year. What was the result? Participants saw an average weight loss of six pounds. That’s right…..SIX pounds. That’s not per month; that’s the entire year doing an hour of cardio six days a week. Men saw an average of six pounds lost, and women saw less than five pounds. That breaks down to about 50 hours of exercise per pound. I wouldn’t call that efficient (or effective).
High Intensity Interval Training Guarantees Weight Loss
So, now that I’ve effectively demonized cardio, what are we left with? How do we burn fat if cardio is out of the picture? I will answer that with another question: have you ever noticed how much more incredibly fit sprinters are compared to runners? Sprinters clearly have better muscular development and lower body fat. Sprinters are anaerobic/interval athletes and long-distance runners are aerobic/cardiovascular athletes. What do they do differently? High Intensity Interval Training.
1. What is HIIT?
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is the answer to everyone’s weight-loss problems. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and you will burn fat even after you’re done working out. It consists of performing a “burst” of a strenuous activity/exercise for a short duration (30-60 seconds) followed immediately by a rest period (30-180 seconds). The rest period is either complete rest, or performing a recovery exercise, depending on the person’s fitness level. A HIIT workout should be between 20-60 minutes consisting of a wide variety of different exercises.
2. Why is it so effective?
The concept seems pretty simple, but HIIT is incredibly effective when it comes to efficiently burning body fat for energy. Without getting to in-depth into the biochemistry of it all, HIIT allows your body to burn fat more efficiently than steady state cardio because your body needs to actually “work” to burn fat. Fat is not ready-to-use energy like glucose is; your body needs to release and metabolize adipose tissue in order to make it usable energy for your body.
The drastic changes in your heart rate is what allows your body to burn so much body fat in a short period of time. During the “burst”, you are trying to push your body as close as you can to a peak heart rate for that time period, which places a greater energy demand on your body. Then, when you rest/recover, your body’s energy demands drop. After a couple intervals, your body will “catch on”, and during the rest/recovery phase, it will release fat as usable energy in your body, and once you hit your burst phase, your body will be burning all of that fat your body just made available to you.
Now, your body won’t burn the same percentage of body fat (roughly 30% of total calories), but HIIT workouts burn more net calories overall, so you still wind up burning more fat in the long run. This is what also makes HIIT so effective at burning fat AFTER your workout as well. Once you’re done, your body doesn’t know that you’ve stopped working out. So, it will continue to release body fat after the workout. Some studies had participants releasing body fat up to 40 minutes after they had finished. Compare that to steady-state, where your body stops burning fat once you’re done with your cardio.
3. HIIT vs. Steady-State
Now, let’s actually do a side-by side comparison. First, let’s look at the number of fat calories burned in an average workout.
Let’s say that with your steady-state cardio, you maintain the ideal heart-rate for the fat-burning zone. That means that about 50% of your calories burned come from fat. So, you do an hour of cardio, and 45 minutes of that is “fat-burning cardio”. In that 45 minute span, you burn 300 calories. That’s 150 calories of body fat. That’s one-twenty-fifth of a pound of fat!! I’ll let you take a few moments right now to flashback to all of your long cardio sessions you’ve done in the past, and think about how much body fat you’ve REALLY burned, as opposed to how much you thought you had…
All set? Okay, well, from here on out, you know what you shouldn’t be doing. Now start doing what you should be.
But, just for the sake of the comparison, let’s look at HIIT numbers. Let’s compare our hour-long steady cardio workout with a 20 minute HIIT workout (yes...20 minutes). So, in 20 minutes of hard intervals, Kettlebell training, or intense resistance training, you will burn 500 calories (surprisingly realistic). So, if 30% of those calories are fat, that is the same amount as that hour on the treadmill/elliptical/bike. So, you burned the same amount of fat in one-third the amount of time. We’re not even taking into consideration the fat you’ll burn AFTER the workout either.
So, to sum it all up, you burn the same amount of fat (or more) in one-third the time, you get to rest during the workout, it doesn’t have to involve a cardio machine, and you burn fat even after you’re done. Why are you still on the elliptical?