Over the years, you may have tried a number of different methods to get the fitness results you want. From walking to jogging to sprinting, from body-weight calisthenics to near-maximal free weight training (and everything in between), there are all sorts of methodologies touted as “the best way” to pack on lean muscle and/or drop pounds of fat. With all of my friends indulging in Labor Day feasts, I feel it’s appropriate to share a few thoughts on the most often touted method of reducing body fat: CARDIO. – Now before I go any further, let me say this: I am not a “fan” of any particular type of exercise. While I have my personal preferences, I don’t let those get in the way of being objective about what is and is not effective. So try to keep that in mind 🙂 – If you go into any globo-gym or 24/hour fitness center across our great nation (and in most developed countries, I’d imagine), you’ll undoubtedly see a number of people occupying that gym’s cardio area. Whether we’re talking about the overly stressed mother of three, the “weekend warrior” trying to shed a few pounds and look like he did in his football glory days, or a serious athlete looking to cut weight for a competition, the image is often the same. People are pounding out the miles on the treadmills and ellipticals trying to get just a little bit sexier. But why?
For decades, we’ve heard about “fat-torching” cardio workouts and how you’ve gotta do it, or you’ll never see results! We’re shown images of people running their way to a flatter stomach and firmer buns, and we put two and two together. Simple, right?
You see, the notion that cardiovascular exercise will shred fat is based on our understanding of how our body catabolizes (breaks down) nutrients for energy during exercise. Studies have shown that prolonged, steady-state exercise tends to utilize a higher proportion of fat stores than carbohydrates when compared to shorter-duration, higher-intensity workouts. So basically, a greater percentage of your fuel comes from fat during longer-duration cardio than intense workouts like sprinting and high-intensity weight training. So, all things being equal, we WILL burn more fat for a given amount of exercise in this “cardio zone” than in other areas.
Unfortunately, all things are usually not equal. You see, carbohydrates are more readily burned for energy than fat is. In terms of time taken to produce energy, carbs are WAY more efficient. This means that you can burn many more TOTAL calories in a specific amount of time by doing something more intense and metabolizing these carbohydrates alongside fat. So with this in mind, it’s suddenly not so clear.
– Thanks for nothing, Geoff… now I’m even MORE confused!!! –
Just take a breath, and RELAX! The good news is that no matter what you do, you’ll be burning SOME fat. It’s just a question of how much you use up during your workouts. If you demand more guidance than that, however, I can give you a few pointers and tidbits:
1.) Pick an exercise that you LIKE! Whether it’s running on a treadmill, jogging outside, hitting an elliptical, or doing a kickboxing class, the workout is useless if you’re not actually motivated to DO IT!
2.) Choose an activity that doesn’t aggravate any preexisting injuries or medical conditions. This should be obvious, but don’t do an activity just because someone else does. Do it because it works for you!
3.) Mentally prepare yourself — Know how intense you want the exercise to be, and have a realistic impression of how long you can keep up that intensity. I will elaborate on this more in the future.
4.) If you’re going to do an extended cardio session on the same day as a strength/weight training workout, try to do it after you’re done with the weights. There’s a physiological reason behind this that I’ll get into in the future, but rest assured that it will probably help you to burn a little more fat than you would otherwise.
5.) Aside from fat burning, there are many other benefits of cardiovascular exercise that should not be ignored! These can include better hormone balance, more restful sleep, better mood, more energy, improved capacity to recover from injury, and reduced risk of a number of preventable diseases. (More to come on this as well!)
So feel free to run on into the sunset if you feel compelled to do so! Just make sure you’re not causing injury to yourself or overtraining in the process. While there are all sorts of ways to tweak and modify your exercise plans, the most important thing to start with is that you find something you can see doing in the long-term (and that’s usually something that’s fun and rewarding in the short-term!)
I’ll continue to expand on these ideas and give a little more scientific depth in future content (much of which will likely go on my permanent pages). So if you’re curious about something specific, feel free to let me know!