If you are like most American adults, you will easily be able to imagine this scenario:
You are leaving work after another long, grueling day. Either your kids are hungry or your dog has to be let out. And it’s dinner time. Because no one is going to make dinner for you, it’s up to you.
The fridge is empty, and you know it – you skipped grocery shopping this week. But it’s cool, you handle the rush hour traffic and swing by your local grocery store for something quick and healthy, but most quick to eat. Sandwiches and chips it is for the kids. And you find yourself picking off and cleaning up their plates.
Now, it’s time for your Cardio Kickboxing class across town. You decide between taking another drive or lacing up your Nike’s and going for a 45-minute run around your neighborhood (and still through traffic).
By now, you’re tired. Between work and the carb-heavy dinner, your willpower is low.
Netflix and chill it is.
Just like last night.
And sadly, tomorrow will be the same.
If You’re Sucker for Weight Loss, You’ve Been Scammed
When Americans switched from manual labor to desk jobs, we also began looking for ways to eliminate toxic body fat. Our efforts haven’t proven successful against the average increase in caloric intake.
The deep, belly fat is called “toxic fat” by doctors because it secretes various compounds into the blood that are harmful and linked with the diseases I mentioned above.
Body fat is not all the same. There are two types: subcutaneous fat, or above the muscle, and visceral fat, or the hard, round fat beneath the stomach muscle. Visceral fat is the harmful stuff.
What’s the problem?
Across the globe, 3.2 million people die from complication of being overweight and out of shape every year. When combined, the risk for many types of cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes is increased.
In 2000, it was confirmed – we ate 530 more daily calories than we did in 1970. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates the average American diet has increased by 25%.
Along with diet, there are other factors that help regulate bodyweight like:
- Sleep quality
- Stress levels
Regardless, physical activity should be a part of any plan to maintain a healthy body weight. When used appropriately, exercise may help prevent and decrease body fat – visceral body fat included.
In this post, I’m going to build off my last one – How Americans Were Tricked Into Running.
Yes, exercise does promote fat loss. As you learned in the previous post, cardio isn’t the type of exercise you want to be doing for fat loss.
The type of exercise matters.
The Secret to Unlocking Cardio: Intensity
There are two type of exercise that are proven to help you lose body fat:
- High intensity interval training
- Strength training
Since the 1990s, it’s been known, through peer reviewed studies published by hundreds of researchers that interval and resistance training do better than cardio when it comes to losing body fat.
Let’s check out a groundbreaking study:
Researcher: Angelo Tremblay, Ph.D.
Main argument: Upon reviewing 1,366 females and 1,257 male subjects datasets from a 1990 study, it was revealed that participants lost more body fat when exercising at higher intensities despite calories burned being equal.
Sample size: 27 men and women.
Have you ever heard of the “fat-burning zone” – it’s supposed to be reached after 20 minutes of easy to moderate intensity cardio. But the results didn’t prove this at all – it was proven wrong.
The 27 participants were split into two groups:
- Group 1 – used endurance training (ET) cycling continuously for 30 minutes initially, and building up to 45 minute sessions. At the end of 20 weeks, they logged 80 workouts.
- Group 2 – did high-intensity interval exercise (HIIE). They also started with steady-state cardio (for 30 minutes) a few times a week. But at week five, thy stopped and switched to short, four-minute interval workouts for only 15 weeks or 60 workouts.
At the end of 20 weeks, (Group 2), the HIIE group, lost more fat than the cardio group even though they exercised for less time per session.
Neither group lost body weight. But, body fat percentages did change. The HIIE group lost nine times as much subcutaneous fat, when measured by calipers, than the cardio group.
So, it’s true – you can lose body fat and gain muscle at the same time.
What’s even more notable – muscle metabolism was improved for those using HIIE when compared to steady-state cardio. Participants in the HIIE program burned half the amount of calories from exercise as the cardio group.
Note: calorie burn and energy expenditure are basically the same thing.
There’s more to this, but for now, understand this: Total calorie burn is a combination of resting energy expenditure (your basal metabolic rate) and energy expenditure during exercise.
The HIIE group improved their ability to burn calories all day long, far after the workout stopped.
This study went against the popular belief that cardio was good for fat loss and more cardio was even better.
More HIIT research from the 1990s:
Izumi Tabata, a Japanese researcher is famous for putting cardio to the test again four-minute HIIT sessions.
The workouts protocol now known as “Tabata” came from his research proving four-minute spring workouts were better improvement in performance and fat loss.
You may be thinking Tabata workouts are intense. And they are – maximally, in fact. But there’s tons of data that prove HIIT workouts don’t have to make you puke to work. They just have to be short, and more intense a nice jog to yield fat loss.
What About Lifting Stuff?
You don’t have to sprint to get the benefits of HIIT. High-intensity interval exercise, or HIIE, uses bodyweight or resistance training to tap into the same results.
Here’s a sample workout:
- Squat for 20 seconds
- REST for 10 seconds
- Push ups for 20 seconds
- REST for 10 seconds
- (Repeat for 4 rounds or 4 minutes total)
It doesn’t matter if you are doing burpees or lunges in a HIIT workout or a regular paced resistance training session, they are both proven to beat cardio for fat loss.
Body fat physiology 101: the more lean muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolism, or calories you burn when resting. Strength training increases muscle mass, cardio does not (and sometimes decreases).
Note: catabolism, or muscle loss, can be accelerated when cardio is used on a calorie restricted diet.
What If You Like Cardio?
It’s an option. When combined, aerobic and resistance training can have fat loss benefits. It’s all about program design. All I’m saying is you don’t have to spend 30 to 45 minutes on the treadmill. Heck, you don’t have to spend that much time in the weight room either.
If you work larger muscle groups, at the same time, you will be working more efficiently, saving time, and effectively, building muscle.
Stupid Weight Loss Studies and Suggestions
Please forgive me. I don’t usually toss out words like “stupid” when it comes to health and fitness. But, after this section – let me know if you agree or disagree.
Before one more study, health organizations still recommend one hour of cardio per day to maintain weight. Here’s where the scam and stupidity comes in.
First, who has time for that? And secondly, what does the study actually say about cardio and weight loss?
In 2007, researchers from the International Journal of Obesity, claimed long duration cardio yielded weight loss benefits. Two questions:
- How much cardio – 60 minutes a day
- How much fat loss – keep reading
The results were disappointing:
- Men lost an average of about 6.5 pounds of fat
- Women lost an average of about 4 pounds of fat
Wouldn’t you call 300 hours of cardio to lose four to seven pounds stupid too?
Or better asked, “How you you feel on the last day, your 300th workout of the year and all you could see is a few pounds and inches dropped from all of your hard work?”
Well, you don’t have to feel stupid anymore.
This is what “support” outdated recommendations. And that’s not your fault.
You are also mislead because you don’t understand other key factors of fat loss:
- Starting weight
Let’s start with sex. Women: it’s harder for you to lose body fat than men. If you choose to keep using cardio-based methods, you will lose even less weight.
It wasn’t under dance aerobics was born, and advertised toward women, that cardio was advertised as a “weight loss” benefit.
Another part of being a women: you like different food (calorie consumption). In response to cardio, women may be more sensitive to increases in carbohydrates and calories.
Men typically have more testosterone, which affects metabolism, making weight loss harder for women. Not too fast guys. After the age of 30, testosterone levels drop by around one percent every year.
And lastly, it’s easier to drop fat if you have a lot of fat to lose. Think Biggest Loser. So, if you are obese or overweight, you will be able to drop a considerable amount of body fat using cardio – at first. This has a way of throwing people off when it stops working. Instead of switching to strength training, people tend to think more is better. See how this works?
I should say this: interval and resistance training research proves true across the board. Whether you are obese, overweight, man, woman, or child it works. It will help you gain lean muscle and drop body fat if you have weight to gain or lose. It’s proven to improve body composition for everyone.
Stop Focusing on “Weight” Loss
Now you know why some of these studies can claim weight loss – it’s actually muscle loss. And you don’t want to lose muscle on your quest to drop body fat.
Have you ever heard the term “skinny fat” when describing someone who may workout a ton? It’s usually an avid walker or runner, right?
That’s because their muscles are shrinking, making their bodies weak and flabby.
I’m sorry, here’s a more scientific explanation:
Long cardio workouts may break down (catabolize) amino acids for fuel. This may happen when exercising for more than 30 minutes, and can happen faster when restricting calories. Those amino acids come from nonworking muscle tissue. From the muscles to the liver. While in the liver, nitrogen is removed and carbon is sent back to working muscles. (Think about a cyclist with little arms and big thighs and butt). The working muscles (legs) get energy from the catabolized muscles (arms).
When you build muscle (anabolism) instead, the body uses fat for fuel. Amino acids are the building blocks of muscle. The process of building muscle requires stored carbohydrate or stored fat.
This is why having a lot of lean muscle mass increases your BMR (basal metabolic rate). Your body is burning calories while it’s building muscle, at rest.
Remember, no matter how many calories you burn during a workout, it’s a small part of the whole fat loss picture. It’s not as simple as calories in-calories out.
You should consider the “afterburn.”
Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, is the same thing as the afterburn effect. Basically you burn more calories, longer after an intense workout.
Intense sessions help you regulate insulin.
HIIT helps reduce or prevent resistance to insulin more than steady-state cardio. Metabolic syndrome is a bigger topic that I’ll have to address later. For now, in short, the fatter you are, the higher your insulin level are which put you closer to being prediabetic. That puts you at risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
You want be lean and fit, to keep your insulin levels low.
Why Is Cardio Still Optional?
Because I’m not crazy, nor do I want to drive myself crazy by telling people to stop doing it.
And, I’m not saying there are no health benefits to cardio. I’m saying the number one claimed benefit, fat loss, isn’t true.
Approximately 50% of Americans have met the federal guideline for aerobic activity since 2009. But 68.7% of adults are overweight.
Obviously something needs to change.
If you like doing cardio – keep it in your routine. If you know me, you know I walk a ton, but I hate running.
But if your goal is fat loss, spending hours a week running, cycling, or dancing is not realistic, sustainable or necessary.
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