What is cardio? And can I use it to outrun my crippling addiction to pumpkin spice lattes?
Cardio is simply a type of exercise, it is a tool to expend extra calories and in cases of weight loss it is a tool to help with a calorie deficit. In the case of gaining or maintaining muscle and losing body fat it should be seen as a tool for putting ourselves into a caloric deficit and nothing more. It is not the secret to losing fat and it is not the solution to fat loss plateaus. While cardio can increase our overall endurance and indirectly our athletic ability, in terms of fat loss that is not the focus, the focus is to put ourselves into a caloric deficit, lower calories than what our bodies need so our body will break down fat stores in order to get the missing calories. As previously mentioned we need to continue resistance training in order to help maintain muscle mass, and therefore cannot just rely on cardio.
Lets use cardio in an example of putting ourselves in a caloric deficit. If our calories to maintain our current state of being is 2000 a day, but we end up consuming 2200 calories, we have consumed an extra or surplus of 200 calories. So now what? We can do 500 calories worth of cardio, this 500 expenditure is subtracted from 2200 so we end up with 1700, or a 300 calorie deficit at the end of the day. In this example, doing 500 calories worth of cardio can be thought of the same as eating 500 less calories overall.
So why don’t we just do cardio and eat what we want if we just want to put ourselves in a caloric deficit to lose body fat? There are a few issues with this idea. First off, assuming we eat 1000 calories over our maintenance calorie limit, how much cardio would we need to do to burn it off? In my personal experience, it can take up to 50 minutes of walking at a 3.1 speed and 10 incline on the treadmill to burn 500 calories. That’s 100 minutes to burn off 1000 calories that could have potentially been consumed in 10 min depending on what was eaten. Needless to say, a long time on the treadmill. The alternative would be to just simply not eat 1000 extra calories and save yourself two hours of walking.
The next issue is counting how much calories cardio actually burns. While the treadmill may say that I burned 500 calories in 50 min, in reality, it is very very difficult to accurately measure caloric expenditure, especially with commercial gym equipment, to accurately measure caloric expenditure, one would need a lot of equipment, a controlled environment as well as a bunch of technology that most people simply don’t have access to. In addition to this, the calories burned counter on treadmills, bikes, ellipticals and stair climbers can have errors of up to 30%. This means that my 500 calories could potentially have been as low as 350 actual calories burned in 50 min. This means I would have had to walk for 150 minutes to potentially burn off 1000 calories.
The final issue is a combination of the two above factors. Doing that much cardio not only takes up tonnes of time, that many of us frankly don’t have time for in our day, but since it is caloric expenditure it can be very fatiguing over time. Recall from an earlier post that resistance training and lifting heavy weight is the main driver of maintaining muscle when dieting. This means that if we tire ourselves out from all the cardio we will simply not have the energy or maybe the willpower to go and lift. This leads into a cycle of losing muscle mass, meaning we will lose metabolically active tissue, lowering our maintenance calories, meaning we have to eat less to lose weight. Which increases the likelihood that we will eat additional calories that we again have to burn off somehow. As you can probably imagine this can become a nightmare pretty fast.
So yes, while we can do some cardio to help put ourselves into a caloric deficit, it should not be seen as the main way to do so. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is a tool to put us in the fat loss state, and we have access to other tools which may be much easier to apply to our individual lives. Remember our bodies are a complex machine and each tool such as cardio is just a piece of a large selection of tools we can use to achieve our goals, so don’t rely on a single tool but learn to be flexible and use a multitude to allow variance in our approach.