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Do you need cardio to lose weight?

How many of you, when wanting to lose weight immediately think you need to tack on hours of cardio to your current routine? It’s ok, 2015 me is raising her hand right there with ya. But spoiler alert…you don’t need cardio to lose weight. Really.

While cardio is NOT necessary to lose weight it IS beneficial for overall health, specifically cardiovascular health. In this article I’m going to walk you through why you don’t need cardio to lose weight (yay for no running!), but why it’s still a good idea to incorporate it into your fitness routine.

Why Cardio isn’t necessary to lose weight

If you follow me on social media you’ve heard this before. In order to lose fat you need to be in a calorie deficit. That’s it. The calories you’re consuming need to be less than the calories you’re burning.

But wait, wouldn’t that mean you need cardio to lose weight then? Without working out, how are you supposed to burn calories? NO! Exercise is not the only way you burn calories despite what your fitness tracker is trying to tell you.

Your calories burned for the day(or total daily energy expenditure) are made up of 4 different components:

  1. Your BMR - this is about how many calories your body needs just to survive. Think of things like your heart beating, blinking, your eyes reading this, etc. This makes up 50-70% of your total daily energy expenditure. Wow!

  2. Thermic Effect of Food(TEF) - This is the energy your body burns while eating & digesting your food. This can be about 20% of your total daily calories burned.

  3. Thermic Effect of Activity - AKA the calories you burn from exercise. This is made up of calories burned DURING the activity as well as calories burned after. This is typically 10% or less of your total calories burned for the day.

  4. NEAT(non-exercise thermogenesis) aka calories burned from movement but NOT formal exercise. Things like walking in the grocery store, taking the stairs, cleaning, fidgeting, etc. This can make up about 15% of your total calories burned from the day.

As you can see, calories burned from exercise are extremely minimal and are typically where the smallest % of your total calories burned are coming from. MOST of your calories burned for the day are coming from things out of your control and just existing as a human! You would have to tack on an unsustainable amount of exercise to your daily routine in order to make substantial change to your calories burned through exercise which is why controlling your calorie intake and eating in a calorie deficit can be much more impactful and easier to control than trying to manage your calories burned.

But Cardio still burns a lot of calories so this can help with fat loss right?

Yes and no. Most people immediately jump to HIIT cardio for fat loss thinking that harder = better. And typically thinking more calories burned = better. A few things to keep in mind though:

-Remember how Thermic Effect of Activity(AKA the calories you burn from exercise) is about the calories you burn during exercise AND after? Strength training has actually been shown to burn the most calories post exercise and overall. So if you’re thinking about total calories burned, you want strength training not cardio.

-HIIT is a big hit(pun not intended) to your central nervous system AND recovery is more difficult. This can impact your strength training sessions AND leave you feeling famished. A calorie deficit can be much harder to maintain with the level of hunger that comes from constant HIIT training.

-As stated above the amount of cardio needed to make a big dent in most people’s total calories burned is not sustainable and a calorie deficit from your nutrition makes much more sense. For some people, especially those on the shorter side, low intensity cardio can be a good tool to pair with a calorie deficit coming from your nutrition so that your calorie deficit does not need to be so steep. But again, it should be used in conjunction with a calorie deficit and only in sustainable amounts.

Ok ok so you don’t need cardio to lose weight….is it worth doing at all then?

Absolutely. Cardio is key to overall health and heart health specifically. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and a sedentary lifestyle is one of the leading contributors to poor cardiovascular health.

So what kind of cardio should you be doing?

The American heart association recommends 150mins/week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise. For most of us this means cardio done in Zone 2. Training in Zone 2 for 150mins a week can lower your resting heart rate, decrease your blood pressure and much more. In Zone 2 you should be breathing a little heavier but you should be able to easily carry on a conversation.

How can you find your Zone 2? First you need to find your max heart rate by taking 220 - your age. Then you’ll need to take 60% of that number to find your Zone 2 minimum & 70% to find your Zone 2 max. For someone who is 30 years old it would look like this:

220-30 = 190

190*.6 = 114

190*.7 = 133

So for a 30 year old your Zone 2 range might be 114-133. This is just an estimate for the general population so if you’re fairly active yours may be higher.

Training in Zone 2 as opposed to higher zones is going to be most beneficial for your overall health and also help you improve your aerobic base. This is going to make higher intensity training easier over time if that’s important to you. Does this mean you shouldn’t train in higher zones? Not necessarily. But for long term sustainability and to get all of the health benefits of cardio, Zone 2 will be most beneficial.

What if you’re new to fitness and 150/mins feels like too much?

That’s ok!! We were all beginners at one point. Start with what you can do and add more as you progress. Getting up to that 150/mins would be a great goal to have and something to strive towards.

So to bring it all together…no, you don’t need cardio to lose weight. But for your overall health strive for 150/mins in Zone 2/week. Your future self will thank you.

If you want a personalized program that’s built for weight loss AND your overall health. Apply for coaching here.

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