There are many effective ways to lose fat, including cardio. If you’re looking for the most efficient way to lose weight, resistance training might be the best option if your time is limited. However, if you’re not a fan of lifting weights, you can still drop pounds effectively with cardio, but it might take a more significant investment of time per week performing exercise.
"Is cardio the best way to lose fat?"
Unless you’re preparing for (or running) a race, it’s a question you might have found yourself asking, most likely during moments when you’re pounding away on a treadmill and thinking of the moment when your run will be over.
After all, you’re probably not wondering if cardio is “good” for you. Any type of exercise (such as cardio) is good for your heart, your mind, and for fighting the aging process.
But, you've got a goal in mind. You want to drop pounds for long-term weight loss and you want to make sure that with your limited time you're going to see results.
The quick answer: yes, cardio will help you lose fat. But, that doesn’t mean it’s the right (or most efficient) option for you.
Fat Burning 101
Any activity can help you burn fat, but specific methods — like weight training — tend to be more efficient than others. Resistance training boosts metabolism and your ability to burn more calories and fat by building muscle. The more muscle you have on your body the higher your basal metabolic rate (your caloric burn when your body is at rest).
Cardio on its own, without resistance training, can reduce muscle mass. So, when you stop cardio workouts and return to old diet habits, you end up gaining more weight back because of a lower metabolic rate.
So why not just tell everyone to lift weights? Because more important than the type of exercise you perform is the consistency of your behaviors. That is, the best exercise for fat loss is the one that you will do repeatedly and for a long period of time. So if you prefer cardio, then you can use it effectively to transform your body. (More on this in a moment.)
And it goes without saying (but is worth reminding): no fat loss program will work if it's undone by a terrible diet. So, don't use running as a way to rationalize extra calories (and be sure to prioritize protein and vegetables).
How Cardio Training Actually Works
The best forms of cardio for fat burning is a mix of aerobic and anaerobic exercises. Aerobic is classified as steady-state exercise that gets your heart rate up and uses oxygen to sustain continuous movement without fast fatigue. Anaerobic exercise can be classified as short bursts of high-powered, high-intensity exercises and relies on energy breakdown from muscle stores rather than oxygen.
High intensity is what it sounds like: an all-out push (usually for a short period of time), followed by a short rest, and then another all-out push. This is the method that was popularized by terms like HIIT (high-intensity interval training) or even the Tabata method.
Those high-intensity bursts fire up your metabolism, which allows you to burn fat. The challenge is working out at a super high intensity is difficult, and can potentially lead to more injury or burnout. The benefit is that the exercise can be short, sometimes as little as 4 minutes.
The 4 minutes comes from the “Tabata method,” which is a scientifically supported fat loss method. In testing the Tabata method, subjects pushed as hard as they could for 20 seconds -- think maximum effort -- rest for 10 seconds (jeez that went fast), and then repeated this pattern for eight rounds until time was up. The workout lasts just 4 minutes, but research suggests it can burn more fat than doing 60 minutes of traditional cardio.
As we mentioned, you can trigger fat loss with almost any type of activity. One way to measure fat loss is by the number of calories burned during exercise. When you move, your body uses energy, you burn calories, and you go home. Calculating how many calories you burn during exercise is just one piece of the fat loss puzzle.
In addition to burning calories from moving, certain types of exercise can rework your hormonal environment and help improve your metabolism.
Every time you do a surge of high-intensity work, your body’s mitochondria -- the cells that power your entire body -- need to provide ATP (your body's energy source). When that happens, your body will go to work for you and burn more calories. That's because your body creates more mitochondria, so you have more power blocks, and more power blocks means more ATP.
Translation: more mitochondria means more capacity for fat loss because of metabolic changes that can keep you burning calories for hours after you finish your workout.
Which brings us to "steady state" or traditional cardio (also known as lower-intensity cardio). This is what most people think about when they imagine doing cardio. Jump on a treadmill (or outside), find a pace that you can maintain, and then run for a long distance, such as 30-60 minutes (or longer) or run for a goal of a specific number of miles. Then, shut it down, go home, and call it a day.
The challenge is not wanting to quit after 10 minutes. The benefit is that you feel like you’re burning calories and working hard, and many people experience a “runner’s high” where endorphins kick in, you get a second wind, and by the time you’re done -- because it was a “longer” workout -- you feel accomplished.
On the other hand, traditional cardio doesn’t tap into ATP in the same way as high-intensity work. While it’s certainly more efficient, doing high-intensity work many days a week can lead to burnout or injury, and it’s not the only way to burn fat.
If you do low-intensity, steady state cardio (or LISS), you’re still going to lose fat. Instead of thinking about improving your metabolism, it’s more of a direct relationship of calories in versus calories out.
Say you burn 200 calories during 30 minutes of work on the treadmill. That’s a good workout, and your caloric deficit from exercise (your body burns calories in other ways, too) for the day is 200 calories.
That’s good work, and those burned calories will add up over time. If you cut 200 calories from your diet, too, then you’d be saving 400 calories per day, and that will make a difference in weight loss, even if you’re not providing additional improvements to your metabolism.
But here’s the slippery slope: doing more and more cardio will not necessarily lead to more and more weight loss. The "more is better" mindset is why so many people get frustrated by cardio. They see the time and effort they put it, but the weight on the scale doesn’t seem to change at the same rate.
Your body is very adaptive. So, if you do the same workout over time, without ever adjusting intensity, your body (and metabolism) will adapt to become more efficient. Put another way, if you do 30 minutes of cardio at 3.0 on the treadmill. And then stay at 3.0 for months on end but increase the time, yes -- you’re doing more exercise -- but your body is also becoming more efficient and needing fewer calories (energy) to push yourself at the 3.0 level.
Like any skill or practice: when you do it the first few times, it’s hard. And it takes a lot of energy (whether mental or physical) to figure it out. After you master it, you might decide to take more time to do it, but that doesn’t mean it requires the same energy. The same goes for your body. Once it figures it out, you need to create a new challenge, or else changes won’t happen.
A study at the University of Tampa found that when you add in steady state cardio to a program, you experience a temporary boost in weight loss. And then after a few weeks, the weight loss stops. The plateau happened because your metabolic state adjusts.
With lower intensity cardio, your metabolism adapts to the pace, and you constantly have to do more and more to receive similar results. In that way, it’s almost like any drug. Your body creates tolerance, and you need higher and higher doses to produce the same effect.
Your Cardio Fat Loss Workout Plan
Creating the right plan for your body is a mix of figuring out what you enjoy, what you can do consistently, and how to push your body to ensure it doesn’t prematurely adapt and slow down fat burning.
For fat loss, high-intensity workouts will always be more efficient, but you can only do them so often, typically around 2-4 times per week. For any high-intensity intervals, you don’t need to push for much more than 10-20 minutes total, if you’re working at a high-intensity. After that period, your intensity will drop dramatically. Imagine driving a car at max speed every single day. The engine would overheat and be stressed. The same thing happens to your body.
On the other hand, lower intensity cardio can be done much more frequently, and will play an essential role in developing your anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, helping with cardiac health, and even promoting recovery from sore muscles. Depending on the duration and the intensity, you can do cardio almost every day, assuming some of those days are lower intensity (like going for a walk).
Eventually, when your program feels easy, it's a good idea to increase the intensity and duration. So if 3.0 is your sweet spot, once that becomes easy, you can add five more minutes, but you also probably want to bump up the speed to 3.5. Adjusting intensity will help prevent adaptation that slows down the fat burning process.
Whether you combine the two techniques or select one, as long as you apply correctly to your routine, either form of cardio will help you burn fat and deliver results.