What comes to mind when you think about fat loss? For many people, it conjures thoughts of a gym floor filled with rows and rows of treadmills, stationary bikes, and stairclimbers. It may make you think about the mindless hours spent walking or pedaling, briefly glancing down at the machine’s ‘calorie counter’ before going back to your magazine or TV show. Is this really what it takes to lose fat?
It is easy to get confused about what works for fat loss given the sheer number of infomercials, television programs, and contradictory fitness advice out there. The simplest answer is that, yes, cardio can burn fat. Inevitably, this is followed by other questions like “How much cardio?” or “What type of cardio is best?” and so forth. While there are countless articles available on the incredible variety of cardio options and the benefits of each, this article will cover a few common types.
It is true that aerobic activity burns fat, but before you tie on your running shoes, let’s begin by breaking down what fat loss is and how our bodies respond to energy imbalances.
What Is Fat Loss?
Too often people who want to lose fat think about it purely as weight loss. These are not the same thing. Weight loss can occur due to a variety of changes in the body. Many other factors like water retention and when you last went to the bathroom all have an effect. For that reason, only following the numbers on your home scale will not give a complete picture.
The body gets its energy from protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Alcohol also provides calorie content, too, but we do not need it to survive. Also, someone who is trying to lose fat should keep their alcohol consumption as low as possible.
Body fat is reserve energy stored in adipose tissue. When your body detects that energy levels are low, it responds by calling on the backup option to keep everything running. Excess body fat was critical for our ancestors when food supplies were sparse. However, given advances in production and transportation, food scarcity is a thing of the past for many in the developed world.
When you have a prolonged imbalance between your food intake and what you expend, you will either gain or lose fat. Therefore, to achieve fat loss, our goal should be to burn more energy than we take in. There is a lot more science that goes into how this occurs, but at the basest level, if our caloric intake is less than what we expend during the day, we will lose fat.
Contrary to all the advertisements that we are exposed to, tons of diet plans or meal plans that claim they “cause” fat loss do not. Low-carb or low sugar, so-called “clean” diet plans, avoiding bad foods for good ones – all can help with fat loss, but they do not cause it. The energy imbalance of lower energy intake and higher energy spent is what causes fat loss. Please note that this should not encourage you to cut your meal plan down to bare bones!
As Ryan Andrews of Precision Nutrition explains, “When we decrease our caloric intake significantly, the body preserves fat stores very efficiently… The body’s response to calorie deprivation makes rebound weight gain all but definite once the diet is discarded. Muscle is usually lost, so the body usually becomes fatter.”
We know that creating the energy deficit is crucial for fat loss, but slashing our diet plan down to nothing is not the answer. With the groundwork set, let’s consider now how cardio can contribute to a healthy imbalance.
Cardio for Fat Loss
Understanding that you need a caloric imbalance to lose fat, the next question that follows is how best to create it? Every person has different amounts of muscle tissue, differing rates of burning energy and, thus, a different ability to burn fat. Use one of the many online diet calculators or weight loss calculators to figure out your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is how many calories you need per day and having a baseline number will make it easier to create a workout and meal plan to suit your fat loss goals.
For example, let’s assume I need 2000 calories per day to maintain my body’s current needs. If I meet my 2000 calories, I will neither gain nor lose fat. However, if I eat 2000 calories during the day, but burn 500 calories on my afternoon run, I’ve reached a deficit. If I continue to create an energy imbalance over the coming days and weeks, I will lose fat.
What Types of Cardio Are Best for Fat Loss?
First of all, there are quite a few different categories and methods of performing cardio. Unfortunately, many people get stuck in the old-fashioned mentality of hours of mindless jogging on a treadmill. To simplify the options, let’s break down two of the most discussed categories: steady state cardio and high-intensity cardio.
Steady state cardio is the one most people commonly associate with fat loss. It involves a routine typically lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour with a variable rate. Picture a line of treadmills at your local gym with exercisers walking or jogging while watching TV or reading a magazine. That’s steady state.
High-intensity cardio is quite different. Usually shortened to HIIT (high-intensity interval training), this type of cardio involves short bursts of aerobic activity paired with shorter stretches of recovery or rest. A HIIT session can vary in length but often lasts less than 30 minutes.
Which one is best for you? Both of these cardio options can work for fat loss, but one might be better for your particular situation. For example, a steady state cardio workout might involve hopping on a stationary bike, warming up slowly for 5-10 minutes, followed by 30-45 minutes of low or moderate intensity pedaling and, finally, a 5-minute cool down.
In contrast, a high-intensity session may consist of tying on your running shoes, lightly warming up your body with some stretching and 5 minutes of jogging to prepare. Then, you sprint for 20 seconds followed by 40 seconds of steady walking or jogging. Immediately following this 40-second recovery, sprint once again for another 20 seconds. Repeat this sprint and recovery interval for 15 to 20 minutes. If that sounds too intense for you, remember this is just one example. There are many variations of HIIT and lots of methods to build up your fitness level for more vigorous cardio sessions.
HIIT has some advantages over steady state cardio. Because of the intensity, you spend much less time while burning more calories. Even better, the body continues burning calories long after the workout has finished. As the name implies, HIIT can be very intense, but the time savings and calorie-burning advantage are significant.
That is not to say that steady state cardio is not without some benefits, too. It allows for a faster recovery since you’re not taxing your body as much as a HIIT session. While you may not expend as much energy as a high-intensity workout, you still burn calories and maintain muscle mass. Also, performing steady state activity increases endurance and aids cardiovascular health.
When combined with a proper meal plan, either of these options will aid in fat loss. To get maximal gains from aerobic activity, you could consider adding both types of cardio to your weekly workout plans. Switching off may prevent boredom or help figure out what works best for you.
Cardio has other benefits, too.
Whichever cardio routine you choose to follow, there are many benefits beyond fat loss.
Cardio will improve your heart health
Cardio exercise trains your heart. The heart is a muscle and, like any other muscle, it must be worked to become strong. If you fail to work it, it will weaken. A weak heart can contribute to a wide variety of health problems like heart disease.
Cardio can decrease anxiety and depression
Cardio exercise is well known for its ability to improve anxiety and depression. Cardio exercise stimulates the production of “feel good” hormones like serotonin. Plus, steady-state cardio stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system which is the division of your nervous system that shuts down your “fight or flight” responses to stress. This particular response is helpful for fighting anxiety.
Cardio exercise can help you recover from intense training.
Moderate cardio will help reduce post-workout muscle soreness by bringing more oxygen-rich blood to your muscle tissue, which can accelerate the repair and rebuilding process.
Cardio is not “essential” for fat loss. However, it can be a useful tool for weight loss because it improves metabolic functioning and burns calories. Also, cardio can protect you against heart disease, improve mental health and speed up your recovery time between workouts. The combination of aerobic exercise at the correct intensity and duration, a well-designed strength training program and solid diet plan will help you obtain a lean physique while improving your health in general.