How much cardio is actually healthy and how much is too much

"I need to exercise more often." One of the most often said words from our clients. And yeah, that's probably true. But for most people this means strapping on a fitness tracker and spending hours walking, jogging, cycling and what not.

Sure, cardio has it's place in a healthy lifestyle, but it can hinder your progress, especially when you're doing too much.

Do I need cardio to lose body fat?

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Let's get it out of the way. You don't have to do any kind of exercise to lose weight. If your goal is to reduce body fat, all that matters is a caloric deficit through a proper diet. However, it's easier when you work out, because you can eat more and you'll look better in the end.

In fact, many people even gain weight when they only do cardio. Why? Because people often times overestimate the calories they burned during a session (30 minutes of vigorous exercise burns just a few hundred calories - even if the cardio machine or your fitness tracker say otherwise!). And it's too easy to eat the calories back - all it takes are some nuts and a little bit of fresh fruit.

However, if you love cardio and you really want to implement it into your workout routine, don't do more than an hour or two per week. If done correctly, it can speed up the process of losing body fat a little bit.

Your metabolism adapts to the exercise

Your body is a lot smarter than you think. The more you do a specific exercise, the more your body adapts to it in order to increase it's efficiency.

Again, this is why most people think they burn more calories than they actually do, which can leave you in a caloric surplus at the end of the day.

That's what I love about weightlifting. By increasing the weight, you're able to put your body in a new situation every time. Hence, it's a lot harder for your body to adapt to the exercise.

What's better for weight loss: cardio or weightlifting?

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Definitely weightlifting! If your goal is to get a lean physique, make sure to focus on weight lifting, instead of cardio. Yes even the ladies. You won't get "too muscular", that's a myth!

Weight lifting will increase your muscle mass and therefore the calories you burn when you're at rest. Cardio will only burn calories while you do it, plus you'll most likely burn muscle tissue as well.

Furthermore, a proper heavy leg workout can burn a whole lot more calories than running on a treadmill - and on top of that, you'll also burn more calories throughout the next 24h, even while at rest, due to an after burn effect.

What's up with cardio and muscle building?

"Cardio kills gains." A often used mantra in the bodybuilding industry. The right kind of cardio (HIIT) can actually help with muscle growth. However, doing too much cardio (especially LISS aka steady state) can indeed hinder your muscle gaining progress.

Try to think logically here. In order to build muscle mass, you need to be in a caloric surplus. Doing long cardio sessions several times per week will make it much harder to stay in a caloric surplus (especially for people who already struggle to get their calories in).

Furthermore, cardio is catabolic if you do it for too long. Meaning, you'll literally burn muscle mass while you do it. Not what we want!

Hence, cardio definitely has the potential to prevent gains.

Basically, the less cardio you do, the easier it is to preserve muscle mass and strength, especially in a caloric deficit.

What to do first? Cardio or weights?

Depends on your goals. If you primary goal is to increase your endurance, then do cardio first. If your goal is to increase muscular strength and reduce body fat, lift first and then do cardio.

What's the best type of cardio to lose fat?

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Most people think that walking an hour on the treadmill burns more fat than doing short interval sprints. This study proofs this myth wrong. Short interval sprints burn significantly more body fat than steady state. Plus, your body has a hard time adjusting to HIIT, which means less efficiency!

So, if you want to lose fat, do high intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT involves alternating periods of all-out intervals, followed by lower intensity intervals.

HIIT is quite hard and much harder than LISS or steady state cardio. But you will be rewarded, I promise. Here's how:

  • Increase in resting metabolic rate (you burn more after you performed the exercise)
  • Higher levels of fat oxidation
  • Spikes in growth hormone (induces muscle growth)
  • Post-exercise appetite suppression
  • Improves body composition

Oh and by the way: since HIIT is a lot more intense, you should never do more than 30m. And no more than 4 times per week. In fact, if you can do it for say 60m, you're doing it wrong. The all-out intervals have to be so hard, that you simply can't do more than 30m of it.

Am I doing too much cardio?

Probably. I see lots of people doing 45 minutes on the Elliptical every day, wondering why their physiques never change. It seems like cardio has overtaken every other fitness activity.

Remember, too much of anything isn't healthy. Listen to your body, it tells you when something is not right.

Train smart

Working out should be fun. Personally, I don't think doing one hour of cardio per day is fun at all. Train smart and efficient to burn fat and tone your body.

What's your favourite cardio workout/machine? Let me know in the comment section below.

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