When I ask most people why they spend so much time doing cardio, they all give a similar answer. They think it’s the fastest solution to losing their body fat. If you are an individual that does it for the love of running and genuinely enjoys cardio that’s great. Keep it up! Unfortunately that isn’t the case for most people, and in fact, they have some common misconceptions I’ve seen over the years as their main motivations for doing so.
Cardio is the Best Way to Burn Fat
Sure, if you took 60 minutes of lifting weights, and 60 minutes of cardio, cardio does burn more calories. That doesn’t make it the best way to burn fat. It’s not just about what you achieve in the moment, but what are the longer term effects? The more you do cardio, the more efficient your heart and body gets at performing that skill. This results in better utilization of oxygen, and better efficiency with utilizing calories. Over a long enough timeline, you end up burning less calories in that same given time frame. Lifting on the other hand, burns MORE calories the more you do it. The more muscle we have on our frame, the more calories we burn at rest. So even though you may be burning more calories in a cardio session, stay focused on the bigger picture. Lifting weights will ultimately give your body the shape you are looking for, and doing cardio will just get you more efficient at burning calories.
The Fat Burning Zone
Another common misconception is staying in the “fat burning zone” when they do their cardio. Yes, a higher percentage of fat may be burned within a given time, but it’s the total calories that matter. If you burn 40% of your calories from a walk that burns 250 calories, that would still be less than a run where you expend 500 calories and burn 25% from fat.
This also misses the point of cardio training. We shouldn’t be implementing cardio into our lives to micromanage every calorie coming in and out of our body. We want lifestyle changes that allow us to continually stick to them for years on end because we chase the health aspect more than the weight loss aspect. Instead of focusing on hitting a fat burning zone, just shoot for 10,000 steps a day, and find ways throughout your day to sprinkle extra movement in. We should be looking for more excuses to get up and move if we want to live a healthy and long life.
Calories Burned Aren’t Calories Earned
People think they can outwork a bad diet. Or when on a diet, they think if they burned 500 calories on the treadmill, they’ve now earned 500 calories AND can still lose weight. It’s actually the opposite. If your goal is fat loss, and you are expending calories in hopes to lose weight, then that expenditure is there to help create a deficit. What you are trying to do is expend more calories than you are taking in to create a big enough deficit in a given day or week, to elicit fat loss. If you just keep eating the same amount of calories you are burning in your cardio session, then by definition, you are just maintaining your current physique.
I’ve had this happen a lot with clients struggling to lose weight. They will go play hours of a sport on the weekend, or slog away on the treadmill for an hour, and then stuff their face later that weekend thinking they’ve done enough training to offset the bad eating behaviors. The reality is a 60 minute steady state cardio session only burns about 400-500 calories. That is easily replenished by just HALF your dinner at a restaurant which is probably 500-900 calories.
Your best bet is to create some awareness of how many calories you are taking in vs expending. You don’t need to be obsessive or track everything, but just bring some awareness. The same way you’d check in on your finances if you started to see your bank account getting low. By bringing more awareness you are making yourself more accountable to hitting your goals and doing what needs to be done.