Myth Busted: Cardio is Best for Fat Loss

This is gonna be a good one. Here’s one of my FA-VOR-ITE (insert hand clap emoji) workout myths to talk about and why it is incredibly frustrating to me to argue this point to people. Over and over again. And then, sometimes some more. I’m going to guess that the root cause of this myth is the whole “calories in, calories out” mentality. Cardio burns more calories than weight training in a session, I’m not going to argue that! So, if I go to the gym, and I burn a ton of calories, then I’m going to be in a caloric deficit all day long and in three weeks, I’m going to be having to buy a whole new wardrobe! WRONG.

Cardio doesn’t “burn fat” 

Cardiovascular exercise is catabolic, meaning it breaks muscle tissue down for fuel. Whenever you first begin any kind of cardiovascular exercise - running, swimming, biking - the body will build a small amount of muscle that is needed to perform that exercise. However, your body also adapts very quickly to this kind of exercise. That means, that the more that you do steady-state cardio, aka slogging through the treadmill miles or the elliptical, the more efficient your body becomes. You burn less calories per mile, or fewer calories during your cardio session. Now, becoming more efficient and burning less fuel might be great for marathon running, but for someone looking to shed a few pounds, this is a worrisome spot to be in! So, you have two options.

Option A: Eat less. Ah yes, the classic pitfall. However, let’s talk about why eating less probably won’t happen. Cardiovascular activity starts first by eating up the glycogen stores in your body. Then, it moves on to any sugar that may be in your blood stream. When you blood sugar starts to dip, your body calls upon the hunger hormone - ghrelin - to signal to your body that you’re hungry. This hormone not only stimulates appetite, but promotes fat storage. And guess what? All those cardio sweat sessions that you’ve been putting in have made you more efficient, meaning you burnt less calories. Tell that to your rumbling belly.

Option B: Exercise more. This, of course, doesn’t come without its fair share of consequences, since we are potentially limited in the amount of time we have each day to work out and, my personal favorite, more is not always better. In fact, too much cardio puts you at risk of injury and then you’re completely down for the count.

And before I go to my next point, let’s talk about why cardio doesn’t burn fat (if you haven’t guessed already). Here’s a fun fact: An average person has 30 billion fat cells. Let me write that out for you : 30,000,000,000 fat cells. If you had access to water, but no food, you could survive off of your fat cells for 2-8 weeks. Your body has enough stored muscle and liver glycogen, blood glucose, and free fatty acids circulating in your bloodstream to fuel most daily activities. This includes your cardio sessions.

There is also no “fat-burning” zone. Yes, you might be working at a lower intensity, and working more efficiently, but you are ultimately not burning as many calories during the same amount of time, either.

Weight Training Increases Long-Term Caloric Burn

Strength training increases your metabolism in two big ways. During a weight training session, you cause microscopic damage to your muscles, forcing them to work harder to repair themselves (one of the main reasons that post-workout diet and recovery are essential!). This repair requires extra energy from the body, known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). During this repair, your metabolism can stay elevated for 12 hours up to 2 days later! This extra burning boost is not seen after a typical steady-state cardio session.

In addition, as I’ve talked about in previous post (read: Lifting Weights Make Women Bulky), lean muscle mass burns more calories at rest than fat tissue. One pound of fat burns between 2-4 calories at rest, while muscle burns as much as 10! The more lean mass that you are able to build, the more calories you will burn at rest!

So what is the best?

There isn’t one “best” form of exercise for everyone, but an exercise regimen that you enjoy is going to be key in sticking with it! Focus on bursts of high-intensity cardio between sets of weight training for the most effective use of your gym time. This provides the higher caloric burn of cardiovascular exercise with the EPOC effect of strength training, without placing undue strain on your body.

Photography by David Lemon Photography

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Myth Busted: Cardio is Best for Fat Loss