Do you HAVE to do cardio to lose weight?

Posted by Dayne Hudson in Weight Loss

Estimated reading time: 4mins

Do you HAVE to do cardio to lose weight?

Is cardio good or bad for weight loss?

Alright, here's the news: you don't need cardio to lose weight.

One of my personal favourite studies that illustrate this is this one, which discovered whether we achieve a calorie deficit via our diets or the same deficit via a combination of diet and exercise, the fat loss results are the same.

So don't go waltzing off to your fat loss teachers looking for any bonus marks by doing cardio. You won't get any.

Cardio is simply another way to achieve a calorie deficit. So if you are aiming to be in a 500 calorie deficit each day for fat loss, these are your options:

  • Option 1: Create the deficit by dieting only
  • Option 2: Create the deficit by cardio and diet
  • Option 3: Create the deficit by resistance training and diet

And if you keep up that deficit consistently you'll drop fat.

WARNING: If you're still in love with cardio for fat loss, cover your eyes for this next part. But if you like the idea of resistance training for weight loss, keep reading.

This juicy meta-analysis rounded up 58 studies into around 3000 people (right here in Australia might I add) and reported that pumping weights alone can result in a 1.4 per cent reduction in someone's total body fat.

And the best part?

The authors said that's about the same as you can expect to lose from cardio.

So now that you're probably on hold to cancel your cardio class, consider this, too: focusing on your diet is far more important than cardio.

Now, of course, cardio is great for increasing your cardiorespiratory fitness. It also has another whole stack of benefits beyond the scope of this article. But we can't have it all; if your goal is fat loss, we have to make it easy as we can for ourselves. And cardio isn't the way.

From a purely aesthetic point of view (and let's not pretend we don't care about it), weight training in concert with a cardio deficit is how you're going to look your best.

It'll grow muscle and the deficit will chew up your fat and leave you (eventually) looking the way you want. With pop star confidence. Now that's what we queue around the block for.

But surely HIIT cardio burns HEAPS of fat?

When HIIT first came out, many people thought it was the best thing since grandpa's slippers.

 "You'll burn fat for YONKS afterwards all day, whilst you're sipping on your calorie-dense latte at the office!" **Slurp**

Now that sounds great....until you and I do some digging.

Because what we find is that whilst HIIT burns calories for 3-24 hours after a session, it's only 6-15% of the calories burnt from the session itself.

You don’t burn as many calories after HIIT as you think
You don’t burn as many calories after HIIT as you think

So burn 300 calories from your HIIT session and you'll burn 15% of that at best; an extra 45 calories.

Not worth dusting the diary off to brag about that one.

Interestingly, a poll recently surveyed 25,000 habitual runners from all over the world and found that 50% either "hate running" or can "barely tolerate it".

You don't need to be Issac Newton to see what's going on here: people don't seem to like doing cardio. And if you don't like doing it, and you're doing it only to lose weight, then this might be your new favourite article of the month. Or maybe the year. Or maybe I'm getting carried away.

The key point is you carry yourself away to a better weight loss strategy:

  • Focus on a 20% calorie deficit
  • Work out what macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) fit into that number of calories
  • Stick to it for 10-12 weeks
  • Don't blow it on weekends and put yourself back days
Focus on getting this stuff right for fat loss
Focus on getting this stuff right for fat loss.

The bottom line is you don't need cardio to lose weight.

It helps by creating a calorie deficit, which is what governs fat loss, but it isn't necessary. We can burn the same amount of fat by doing weight training, too, but our fat loss results ultimately come down to a consistent calorie deficit. But if you like doing cardio, and want to lose weight, keep doing it. But don't do it if you don't like it and think it's necessary for weight loss. Focus on your nutrition for better and longer-lasting results.

References:

  1. Strasser B, Spreitzer A, Haber P. Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss. Ann NutrMetab. 2007;51(5):428-32. doi: 10.1159/000111162. Epub 2007 Nov 20. PMID: 18025815.
  2. Wewege, M.A., Desai, I., Honey, C. et al. The Effect of Resistance Training in Healthy Adults on Body Fat Percentage, Fat Mass and Visceral Fat: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 52, 287–300 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01562-2
group of product images for proteins
group of product images for proteins