Cardio and Calorie Restriction: The Facts

13 05 2013

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about why I “hate” cardio and why I say that people need to lift weights in order to avoid being fat. Let me clarify some things:

  • Personally, yes, I do hate steady-state cardio. I get bored running long distances, and find bike seats uncomfortable. It’s just not my thing.
  • Scientifically, however, steady-state cardio is inefficient for fat-loss. Can it be an effective strategy for losing weight? Absolutely it can- I never said otherwise. But don’t confuse fat loss with weight loss.
  • There are many ways to avoid being fat. Physical activity (of any kind) and a healthy diet will prevent you from being fat. Unfortunately, most people fail to incorporate both (and oftentimes neither) into their lifestyle. As weights are the most efficient way burn fat, I recommend weights over cardio.
  • My bottom line is always health. In order to be healthy, you should be physically active and eat a full, well-balanced diet. Lifting weights enables you to eat more and therefore gives you the best opportunity to consume the most nutrients.

403278_522385471152330_1358397411_n

But I have this skinny friend who does nothing but cardio!

First of all, there are exceptions to every rule. We all know people who stay thin without paying much attention to their diet and/or activity level. These people are outliers. For the other 99% of us who are either overweight or who are striving for a lean body type, we have to weigh our dietary and exercise options.

As I mentioned above, cardio can be an effective tool for weight loss. However, cardio cannot be deployed alone in an effort to lose weight. In order to capitalize on this type of exercise, one must also employ a calorie-restricted diet. If you’re not going to be challenging your muscles or metabolism, you’re going to have to be very careful with your caloric intake. Remember, cardio has very little afterburn effect (EPOC), and therefore does not help you burn calories after the exercise is finished (your resting metabolic rate returns to normal very quickly after steady-state cardio). Therefore, in order to lose weight or maintain a lower body weight, you have to make sure you don’t eat too many calories. The body will soon adapt to a certain level of cardio as well, so eventually you will have to eat fewer calories or increase your activity level. If you skip a day of cardio, you’ll also have to decrease your calories accordingly. It’s a very tough balancing act and often leads to large weight fluctuations (ie, it’s easy to regain any lost weight).

Additionally, this strategy will not build muscle (as a matter of fact, it will likely cause a decrease in muscle mass over time) and eventually your body will start to hold on to fat cells in response to cardio; this is where you hear the term “skinny fat”- people who don’t appear overweight, but who have a much higher body fat percentage than normal because of their decreased muscle mass. To boot, these people are more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies and decreased immune function due to their decreased caloric intake.

With all of this in mind, exercise of any kind is always good thing, but cardio-driven/calorically-restricted diets are difficult to follow and hard to sustain.

Weight training, on the other hand, builds muscle, burns fat and allows you to eat more food. Who doesn’t want to be able to eat more food? Not only can you eat more food, but you can get away with “cheating” from time to time without immediately ballooning back up to a previous weight.

422837_505591692811408_1134469758_n

In conclusion, pros and cons of cardio/calorie restriction vs. weight training/eating real food:

Cardio/calorie restriction

Pros: You can do cardio anywhere without equipment. You can lose weight. Cardiovascular health will improve.

Cons: You have to limit calories in order to lose weight. You lose weight, but maintain fat, not muscle. You look “soft”. You are prone to large weight fluctuations. You cannot eat what you want, nor as much of what you want. Health many suffer due to lack of nutrients from a restricted diet. Long-term results are difficult to achieve.

Weight training/eating real food

Pros: You lose fat weight but maintain and gain muscle. You look “toned”. You can eat more. You don’t have to count calories. You can spend less time exercising. You get results quicker. Your results are sustainable. Your overall health will improve.

Cons: You have to have access to weights. You will spend more money because you are eating like a normal person.

In the end, I want to encourage everyone to engage in physical activity and eat a healthy diet. However, for more sustainable, efficient, and health-improving results, I will always first encourage people to lift weights, eat a balanced diet and do more general activity on a daily basis (walk more, take the stairs, etc.)

For more information on how to incorporate weight lifting into your life, you know how to find me!

DW