Say No to Cardio
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: in order to lose weight, you have to BURN more than you EAT. While that’s technically true, it’s a tad bit misleading. You see, for most people, when they hear “burn more,” their minds invariably jump to cardio. Whether that means hitting the treadmill, the elliptical, the StairMaster, running, jogging, sprinting, cycling, swimming, or some other totally un-fun way to spend time, most folks think that they have to sweat it out in order to lose those love handles.
In fact, I regularly dip down to 10% body fat and lower without doing one SINGLE, solitary session of cardio. (Or crunches for that matter!)
How is this possible? Like many others, I grew up falsely believing that you had to hit the treadmill and do 1,000 crunches a day if you wanted to be in shape. I would get up extra early just to get an hour in on the elliptical before I went to work, and dutifully slid around on my Ab-Slider every night. However, the physique that I wanted forever escaped me…until I saw the light and quit doing cardio forever.
But I’m jumping ahead. You see, in my basic understanding of fitness, I knew that cardio burns calories. Which is true. And thus, I did some simple math: I don’t exercise. If I leave my diet alone, and I add in some cardio, I will DEFINITELY lose weight because I’ll be burning more calories than I am currently. Right?
Ehh, not exactly.
There are two major points I didn’t account for. Number one was my body’s desire for MORE calories after an hour-long session on the elliptical. And since I wasn’t moderating my diet in any way (nor was I counting calories), I would typically end up eating more than I would have had I NOT done the cardio because I was so voraciously hungry. So I’d overeat, making up for the 350 or so calories I had burned, and end up in a net surplus of calories, totally negating all the hard work I had done.
The second issue I didn’t account for was, and this one’s a biggie, you don’t really burn that much when you do cardio.
So what’s the deal? Why, all my life, have I been told that if I want to lose weight, I need to burn, burn, burn? All the government recommendations said get out there and be more active. Go for a run. Get yourself a Richard Simmons tape and sweat to the oldies until you’re 50 pounds lighter and cut like a Greek God. To tell you the truth, I don’t know exactly WHY all the confusion exists, and I certainly believed the lies for most of my life, but I’m here to set the record straight: cardio is not going to help you lose weight. (Mic dropped.)
Cardio is extremely inefficient
You may be saying, alright Steve, so what exactly is the issue with cardio? I mean, I see super-fit people doing it all the time. Here’s the rub: cardio is EXTREMELY inefficient. To put it in business terms, you get a terrible ROI. Mr. Wonderful would refer to a deal with cardio as “poo poo on a stick.” You may see super-fit people doing it all the time, but it’s definitely not what got them there, and not what keeps them there.
I want to put into perspective just how futile doing cardio is, so follow me through a hypothetical here. It takes roughly 3,500 calories to burn or store one pound of fat. So if you want to lose a pound, you’ve got to burn 3,500 extra calories. If we divide that by seven, that means your goal is to burn 500 calories a day every day for a week. Your plan is to do it with some cardio, so you get up extra early (sacrificing precious sleep in the process) and hop on the treadmill for 30 minutes. If your pace is a relatively leisurely walk, let’s say three miles per hour, you’re going to burn approximately 200 calories. That’s not gonna cut it.
Okay, let’s say you’re feeling frisky and up your game to a slow jog at four miles per hour. Now you’re looking at approximately 255 calories. And if you really pound the pavement at 6 miles per hour? A measly 360 calories. It would take the average person an HOUR on the treadmill every day, at a speed of four miles per hour, to lose ONE pound. That’s a pretty hefty time (and energy investment), and that works ONLY IF you’re not hungry like the wolf after you’re done.
An hour of time for 500 calories. That’s really not that much.
To illustrate how few calories that REALLY is, let’s take a look at America’s favorite burger: the Big Mac. One Big Mac is roughly 540 calories. Add in a large fry and a 16 ounce Coke and you’re looking at a lunch worth a grand total of 1,237 calories. If you wanted to burn that off, you’d have to hit the treadmill at a blistering pace of six miles an hour for AN HOUR AND FORTY MINUTES.
“Alright, so if cardio is useless and futile, how DO I get rid of these love handles, Steve?” Well, remember when I said the old saying “you have to burn more than you eat” is technically true, just a little bit misleading? Well, allow me to let you in on a little secret. In fact, this piece of information may change the way you think about exercise and fitness forever. Are you sitting down? Here we go:
Your body burns a TON of calories without you doing a single gosh-darn thing.
That’s right. The simple task of keeping you alive is quite energy intensive, and requires anywhere from about 1,200 calories to about 2,500 or more depending on your age, sex, height, weight, muscle mass, etc.
This is called your Basal Metabolic Rate, otherwise known as your BMR. If you were in a coma, and you couldn’t speak, couldn’t open your eyes, COULDN’T even LIFT your head, you could still count on burning a thousand calories or more. Pretty great if you’re trying to lose weight, eh? I mean, apart from the whole being in a coma thing, but anyway…
The point that I’m trying to make is this: exercise is a shitty way to try and lose weight. And I’m not talking just cardio, I’m talking ALL exercise (including lifting weights). The much more efficient approach, the much EASIER approach, the approach that’s going to keep you in it for the LONG HAUL and not just the short term, is to MODERATE YOUR DIET.
It’s much easier to lose weight by controlling what you eat than it is to add in extra activity. For one, that shit is hard. It requires a lot of work. A lot of energy. And a lot of motivation and discipline. Additionally, it’s very difficult to know exactly how many calories you’re burning by doing cardio or lifting weights. Even the little readout on your Peloton is just an estimate, a best guess.
It’s much easier to figure out your BMR, add in a ROUGH, conservative estimate for any physical activity you may be doing (which is known as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, AKA TDEE) and just eat a little less than that.
Alright, back to the Big Mac. If your plan was to lose a pound a week by creating a calorie deficit of 500 calories a day, all you would have to do is skip out on the large fries! That’s it! A large order of fries from McDonald’s is about 510 calories. So boom, there’s your 500. It is SO much easier to do that than to get on that treadmill every day for an hour, don’t you think? I do.
“But Steve, what if I want to diet AND do cardio? Won’t I lose even more weight?” Of course! If you can sustain it, and that’s a big if. Exerting yourself physically signals to your body to eat more. As we discussed earlier, the time you spend running can be easily negated by the extra food you may be craving afterwards. If you don’t exert yourself, and simply eat a little less than your body requires for the day, you won’t feel the need to hit up that drive-thru for those two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.
Now, let’s move on to another uncomfortable truth: cardio is boring. Boring as HELL (at least, in my humble opinion). Most modern treadmills are equipped with nice big fat screens with Netflix and Hulu baked in. Why? In order to distract you from what you’re actually doing. Why? Because most people hate doing cardio! WHY? BECAUSE IT SUCKS!
Do you think our Paleolithic-era ancestors ran for fun? I doubt it. They ran for two reasons: one, they were chasing something. Two (and probably more importantly), they were being chased. That’s it.
Exercise shouldn’t be punishment. It should be something you want to do, not have to do. Because guess what? If you don’t want to do it, you might tough it out for a week or two, or maybe even six months, but eventually, you’ll quit. Simple as that. And what happens to your weight loss when your plan is based on exercising instead of dieting? You stop losing weight.
“But hey Steve, I actually LIKE running! What gives?”
If you actually LIKE running, great! Keep doing it! Cardio obviously provides a host of positive benefits, including a decrease in cardiovascular mortality, lower blood pressure, higher insulin sensitivity, and a superior lipid profile. Just don’t use it as your primary mechanism for weight loss. Also, keep in mind that there is evidence to suggest that long distance runners may experience periods of lowered immune system and a greater plaque burden!
Plus, the good things about cardio (such as the boon to your cardiovascular system) can also be achieved through weight training. That’s right: anything that puts a stress on your musculature is going to impact and (over time) improve your cardiovascular health. It’s like I always say: cardiovascular health…it ain’t just for runners anymore! If you like running, by all means do it, but know that it’s not the only way to a healthy heart.
Additionally, if your goal is hypertrophy, doing too much cardio can impact your muscle gains. Now, if you’re an experienced bodybuilder, and you’re using cardio as an auxiliary mechanism to burn a few extra hundred calories during your cut, have at it. But even then, don’t do too much if you want to preserve that hard-earned muscle.
So if exercise isn’t good for losing weight, what IS it good for?
In addition to the aforementioned improvements in cardiovascular health, it helps to reduce stress, releases endorphins that generally make you feel pretty dang great, boosts your metabolism, improves focus, etc. And, when it comes to resistance training, it obviously helps you build muscle. You’ve never heard of a bodybuilder who didn’t lift, have you?
The one thing it DOESN’T do, is help you lose weight. So, the next time you’re eyeing that donut, just remember exactly much time on the treadmill it’s going to take to get you back to zero.