If you’re like most of us, cardio is your frenemy.
Sure, cardio — running, swimming, cycling, rowing, or fast walking — can make you feel amazing (especially afterward), but, we’ll admit it: Sometimes it can be a total drag to do. This is especially true if you’re trying to lose weight. Putting the hours in on a treadmill or a spin bike may help keep your heart strong, but will all of that work translate to lower numbers on the scale?
We asked Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s director of fitness and nutrition content, to get the real details on the role cardio plays in weight loss.
(Also, you know what kind of cardio is way more fun? The HIIT workouts available to stream on Openfit and in the Openfit app. Try one today for free!)
Do You Need Cardio to Lose Weight?
Here’s the good news: No. You don’t have to do cardio to lose weight.
So why does the bulk of generic weight-loss advice out there (and there is a lot) recommend 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 idea of “calories in, calories out.” This theory revolves around the idea that a pound of fat contains approximately 3,500 calories. Following that theory, you can lose one pound of fat a week if you burn 500 more calories a day than you consume.
Except the math is not that simple. Sorry.
Studies show that though cardiovascular exercise can help keep our hearts and lungs healthy, it alone is not a good way to prevent obesity and you can’t guarantee weight loss by burning 500 calories more than you eat a day.
“Strength training can be more effective for losing fat than steady-state cardio, because it keeps your metabolism elevated for longer post-workout, [thus] helping you burn more total calories,” says Thieme.
The scientific name for the phenomenon he’s referring to is excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), but you can just think about it as workout recovery. The more intense and challenging a workout is, the more metabolic stress and cellular micro-damage it will cause, and the longer and more extensive the recovery will be. The longer and more extensive the recovery is, the more energy it will require, and the more total calories you’ll burn as a result of the workout.
A 2003 scientific review of research on EPOC found that heavy resistance training produced the biggest EPOC when compared to cycling or circuit training. In fact, when it comes to fat loss, there’s only one type of cardio that can out-perform strength training…
What Type of Cardio Is Best for Weight Loss?
You don’t have to do cardio to lose weight, but you can 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. Though if you do want to go running, here’s how to pick the best running shoe.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio is effective for losing fat for the same reason strength training is effective: It produces higher sustained EPOC than steady-state cardio activities like jogging or walking. One HIIT style — known as Tabata — is so intense that it can be done in as little as four minutes, often without needing any equipment.
“Exercise intensity is more important than duration,” says Thieme. “You can potentially lose more fat by doing 20 minutes of HIIT than you can by doing 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, it can increase your risk of overtraining and injury,” says Thieme. “So build a strong fitness foundation with steady-state cardio and strength training before you attempt HIIT.”
How Much Cardio Should I Do to Lose Weight?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic number when it comes to doing cardio to assist with weight loss. It depends on a number of factors, including your current fitness level, the type of cardio you’re doing, and whether your training plan also includes strength training (which it should).
Generally speaking, you’ll need to do more than the 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity that the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recommends for weight maintenance.
“But all of that exercise won’t matter if you’re eating more calories than you burn off,” says Thieme, nodding to the popular axiom about not being able to out-exercise a bad diet. “Successful, long-term fat loss requires both a healthy diet and a challenging exercise program.”
The Bottom Line on Cardio for Weight Loss
Don’t rely only on steady-state cardio for weight loss. If you’re a beginner exerciser and your goal is to lose weight, you can start with steady-state cardio, but you’ll likely need to incorporate strength training and/or move on to more intense forms of cardio (like HIIT) to continue your losses.
“And, of course, you’ll need to give equal attention to the other side of the equation—your diet and eating habits,” says Thieme. Heed this advice — and stay consistent — and you can achieve significant weight loss.