From eating a balanced diet, getting adequate rest, to maintaining a constant workout regime, there are plenty of factors that work in tandem to influence fat loss. Yet, it’s not uncommon for people to immediately turn to cardio exercises to lose fat and weight when they embark on their fat loss journey. But does cardio really help with fat loss?
In this article, we’ll provide an in-depth analysis of the effectiveness of cardio and bust some common myths surrounding the fat loss.
What is Cardio?
Cardio is a health term for the heart. The term is derived from the Greek word “cardia” meaning heart1. Cardio is also short for cardiovascular, which refers to the body system that has the heart at its core. Cardio activities involve the continuous, rhythmic contraction of large muscle groups2.
A typical cardio session to lose fat and weight will:
- Increase your heart rate and keep it in an aerobic zone (about 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate)
- Increase your breathing and get you sweating
- Use large muscle groups e.g., upper body or legs
Why Do People Assume Cardio Helps with Fat Loss?
Fat loss is mainly associated with burning calories. Because a cardio workout can help burn tons of calories in a short period of time, it is not uncommon for people to assume that it helps with fat loss.
Truth is, in order to lose fat, you need to create a calorie deficit. Although cardio does aid in burning calories, the deficit created through the process alone is not significant enough to cause noticeable fat loss.
Myth-busting: Cardio for Fat Loss
Let us start off by saying that we are not against cardio as a workout. Being active is certainly important to keep the body healthy and the human body was made to exist in motion.
However, things start to fall apart in the lack of knowledge as to what cardio workouts really do. While there are many advantages that come with cardio workouts, there are also common myths that may be taking you off track on your fitness journey.
Myth 1: Cardio is the Only Ticket to Fat Loss
Although cardio does aid in fat loss to an extent, it’s not the only way to slim down. In order to lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit, which means burning more calories than you consume. Losing weight depends greatly on the calories you consume and how much exercise you do each week to achieve your calorie deficit.
How fast it takes you to burn calories from your cardio workouts also involves a few other factors, like:
- Body composition
- Workout intensity & length of the workout
- Overall daily activity
Myth 2: Any Cardio Under an Hour Is Worthless
When it comes to cardio workouts, it’s not the duration only, but also the intensity of your workout session. Half an hour of cardio sessions, be it stair climbing, cycling, or running have been proven to be highly effective.
The science behind this is the after-burn effect or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC)3. High-intensity exercises allow the body to burn calories for hours even after resting compared to long-duration low-intensity workouts.
Myth 3: Do Cardio Before Strength Training
If you first hit the treadmill for an intense cardio workout and then do strength training exercises, you might have little energy left to do weightlifting. You also run the risk of getting injured or facing accidents due to extreme fatigue.
Packing more heavy-weight workouts all at once also does not necessarily mean you lose more weight. So instead of scheduling the sessions for a single day, it’s best to practice them on alternate days.
If you still wish to combine them, finish your strength training exercise first, then switch to cardio.
Myth 4: Fasted Cardio Is Best for Fat Loss
There’s a common misconception that performing cardio on an empty stomach leads to more fat loss4. This stems from the belief that your body utilizes its stored fat supply for energy when it falls short of readily available calories, thus leading to more calorie burns.
However, this is far from the truth. Your body needs the energy to perform, and energy comes from food. Fasted cardio may only negatively affect your overall performance due to fatigue and exhaustion.
Myth 5: Cardio workouts can burn extra calories
People generally tend to overestimate the calories they burn during a workout session and underestimate the calories they eat. But no amount of cardio exercise can outperform a bad diet.
Hence unless you’re a marathon runner or an athlete who spends endless hours in the gym, the relatively insignificant amount of calories you burn during your cardio session won’t make up for the excessive food you consume.
Here’s Why Cardio Isn’t the Answer for Weight Loss
1. Cardio alone is not enough
Although cardio does aid in burning some stored fat cells, the only way to lose fat is by creating an energy deficit in your body. The best way to do that is by consuming fewer calories than what your body consistently requires.
That way your body will be forced to utilize your stored fat, thus causing weight loss. Performing cardio consistently while not paying attention to your diet does no good.
2. It Raises Cortisol Levels
Performing endurance exercises for prolonged periods can cause an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. This can in turn lead to a hormonal imbalance. It can also be hard for the body to lose fat and even promote fat storage in the abdominal region7.
3. Increases Appetite
Cardio workouts with moderate intensity in the first week can burn fat without an appetite change drastically. However, the increase in physical activity will also increase the appetite to the detriment of weight loss.
Increased appetite is a protective mechanism of the body. It allows the body to ensure that it is receiving enough energy that is required for the workouts8.
4. Cardio Doesn’t Help in Increasing Muscle Mass
Cardio may contribute little towards lean muscle building, one of the most important factors for weight loss. On the contrary, too much cardio can even hinder muscle growth.
Lean muscle growth helps your body burn extra calories even while resting through the concept of resting metabolism9. This is because muscle tissues are more metabolically active than fat tissues and require more calories to function even when your body is at rest.
Maximize Your Calories Burned with Different Cardio Exercises
If weight loss is your goal, choosing exercises that burn the most calories in the shortest amount of time will help you make the most out of your workout. Choose moderately to vigorously intense activities that use your lower body’s larger muscles.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says that a 154-pound or approximately 70kg person doing a 30-minute cardio workout can burn between 140 and 295 calories10.
Popular cardio activities and the estimated number of calories they can burn in 30 minutes include:
|Cardio Exercise||Estimated Calories Burned – % of calories burned using a 500ml Classic Bubble Tea (Milk Tea + Tapioca Boba) 335 calories|
|Walking (3.5mph)||140 calories (41% of bubble tea)|
|Dancing||165 calories (49.2% of bubble tea)|
|Hiking||185 calories (55% of bubble tea)|
|Swimming||255 calories (67% of bubble tea)|
|Running (5 mph)||295 calories (88% of bubble tea)|
|Cycling (>10mph)||295 calories (88% of bubble tea)|
Effective Fat Reduction Alternatives
Even after months of hard work in the gym and reducing your daily caloric intake, it is important to bear in mind that all these efforts might not be effective in stubborn areas. Areas such as the axillary fat (bra fat), love handles, or saddlebags, tend to be areas that are hard to target even for the most disciplined gym-goers.
The truth is you can’t actually pick one area of fat to burn with dieting and exercise. However, non-invasive fat removal treatments could be an ideal option if you are looking for a solution to finally get rid of these relentless pockets of fat.
Cryolipolysis or Fat Freezing is a method where temperatures as low as -10°C to -13°C are used to freeze fat cells without damaging the skin and the surrounding tissues in the area.
CoolSculpting is the only US FDA-approved non-invasive fat removal procedure that uses cryolipolysis to kill fat cells in targeted areas under controlled conditions. These damaged cells are then naturally eliminated through the body’s lymphatic system over a period of 3 months.
SculpSure is another FDA-approved non-invasive fat removal procedure that uses laser-induced heat to eliminate the fat cells in these stubborn areas by causing cell death, without damaging the surrounding tissues and skin surface. The damaged fat cells are then excreted through the body’s natural waste disposal method.
Check out Our Video on Why Cardio Does Not Mean Fat Loss:
Rounding It Up
Doing cardio workouts alone is not enough for fat loss. It has to be supplemented with a calorie deficit and a variety of consistent exercises such as strength training etc. It is not just about losing weight, but about making sound decisions and creating new habits to keep it off long-term.
1. Mylsidayu, A. (2019, February). The Influence of Cardio Workout to Aerobic Endurance. In 2nd International Conference on Sports Sciences and Health 2018 (2nd ICSSH 2018) (pp. 29-32). Atlantis Press. 2. K. Thompson, “The fitness book,” London: Darling Kindersley Limited, 2012. 3. R. Ramayulis & L.C. Lesmana, “17 alternatif untuk langsing,” Jakarta: Penebar Swadaya: 2008. 4. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/physical_activity/index.html 5. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/5008/7-things-to-know-about-excess-post-exercise-oxygen-consumption-epoc/
5. Brzyski, L (2020). Intermittent Fasting Trend. Philly Mag. https://www.phillymag.com/be-well-philly/2020/02/25/intermittent-fasting-trend/ 6. Mattson, M P., Longo, V D & Harvie, M (2017). Impact of intermittent fasting on health and disease processes. Ageing Research Reviews. v. 39, 46-58. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1568163716302513
7. de Cabo, R & Mattson, M P (2019). Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Health, Aging, and Disease. The New England Journal of Medicine. v. 381, i. 26, 2541-2551. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmra1905136 8. Gunners, K (2021). 6 Popular Ways to Do Intermittent Fasting. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-ways-to-do-intermittent-fasting