Is cardio making you fat?

Spending more than 3 hours a week doing some sort of sweaty cardio workout, but still not seeing results? Cardiovascular exercise is linked to being healthier and living longer. And if you’ve decided to shed a few pounds, you probably have tried doing more cardio.

If you are grinding away at hours of cardio every week and that belly fat refuses to budge, let’s check out: 1) what is cardio? 2) how does fat loss work? 3) and can cardio actually work against you?

Cardio: what is it?

Short for cardiovascular training, cardio is usually thought of as running, cycling, swimming or some machine/activity that gets you sweaty. Commonly, cardio is thought of something that you do over a longer block of time, like 20-60 min of steady activity. However, any activity that makes it harder to breathe – that challenges the heart and lungs – is cardio. Could be climbing the stairs, dancing or running.

Anything that raises heart rate and challenges your heart and lungs is training your cardio system – your heart and your lungs. Just like building any other muscle, cardio puts the heart muscles under a degree of stress – makes them work – with the aim of making it stronger.

Cardio is easy to do, relatively speaking. You just get on a machine and go. Or get outside and walk or run. It doesn’t take much expertise and is accessible, so most of us – me included – start out fitness adventure here.

Fat Loss: how does it work?

Losing body fat is about getting your body into a caloric deficit – using more calories than you are eating. Eating less and moving more. Sounds so simple. Cardio has been the ‘go to’ for generations of fat fighters because as you move you are using calories you otherwise would not have used. The idea is that along with eating the right amount, exercise will help to create that calorie deficit and you’ll lose fat.

Is your cardio working against you?

So that’s all good. It seems like if you just do more cardio you’ll be moving closer to your goal. And – if you are also making changes to your eating habits – that’s probably what will happen in the very short term, until your body adjusts. Once your heart is able to cope with your cardio workout, your body is done adapting to that level of challenge, even if you finish up sweaty and red-faced. You’ve got as far as that 30 min on the treadmill is going to take you. To get further, workout intensity has to change. What many of us have done at this point is to do more cardio. But more cardio won’t always produce more results. There is a point where excessive cardio-focused training can work against you.

Signs that the amount of cardio you’re doing isn’t helping are: 1) Holding onto fat despite regular exercise, even with increased exercise. 2) You feel sore, are more prone to injury and/or tired on a regular basis. 3) Your size has shrunk, but your shape has remained the same, i.e. feeling soft/fluffy even after weight loss.

We are using more calories while doing cardio, but when we stop, it stops. And our bodies adjust relatively quickly to cardio exercise. When we try to burn more calories by doing more cardio, we can lose muscle. A loss of even a small amount of muscle reduces our Resting Metabolic Rate – the amount of calories we burn doing nothing at all. Less muscle also makes future cardio workouts less effective. There’s less muscle, less need for calories and workouts become a grinding slog to zero results. No!!

Resistance training, weightlifting and high intensity interval training are far more effective ways to increase intensity and to lose fat (never forgetting the all important role of nutrition!). These will build muscle strength and power, increasing the amount of calories you body needs in both workouts and just resting.

Even if you love your long bike rides or epic runs, it’s essential to mix these up with focused strength training and shorter interval work. Although cardio has it’s important role in heart health, too many long sessions can stress and weaken the heart. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3538475/

More than 3 hours a week is probably too much. Your heart needs time to recover, particularly from long endurance workouts. Just like soreness you feel in a muscle after working it hard, it needs a little rest and time to recover. Endurance athletes, like marathon runners and triathletes need to take particular care and train smart. Running long distances several days a week won’t necessarily increase your fitness or give a completive edge. But some strength training focused on building power and stability will.

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