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The Case Against Long Duration Cardio

I received a great question this morning on cardio training that I wanted to share on the blog. I think it perfectly addresses one of the biggest misconceptions there is about cardio workouts….that more is better!

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Before we get into why, here is the question I received.

“Shane, I’m doing the elliptical trainer for thirty minutes and jogging on the treadmill for thirty minutes, five times per week but I’m not seeing very much change on the scale or in the mirror. What would you suggest I do differently?”

There’s more to the equation with changing your shape than just cardio, more on that in a minute, but first let’s address the cardio component.

There’s long been this idea that the more cardio you do, the more calories you’ll burn, and therefore the more weight you’ll be able to lose.

The first part of this statement is partially correct. The longer you do any physical activity the more calories you’ll burn during the activity. However, this is pretty insignificant as you shouldn’t be that considered with the number of calories you burn DURING a workout.

If weight loss was simply a factor of calories in versus calories burned this strategy would work perfectly ever time. As most people can attest to it’s just not that simple. The reason is the human body releases stored fat for energy when the conditions are right both from an energy expenditure standpoint and a hormonal standpoint.

Calories burned during the workout are far less important than calories burned AFTER the workout.

The most effective cardio OR weight training routines for that matter, are ones that create post workout caloric expenditure through something that’s called the EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) effect.

To simplify things, traditional long-slow-distance type cardio workouts (like the ones you’d do for 45-60 minutes) have very low EPOC because they’re done with the body using the aerobic energy system.

You burn calories from glycogen and fat during the workout, but it literally stops once the workout is over.

There’s also no hormonal response from the adrenals releasing adrenaline and nor-adrenaline to serve as a catalyst for fat loss. If anything you’re far more likely for the adrenal glands to release cortisol during prolonged cardio workouts which is completely counterproductive from a fat loss and lean muscle standpoint.

Compare this to burst training and interval training routines which are done for far shorter periods of time but have much greater EPOC and provide a surge in fat burning hormones.

The length of time you do cardio workouts is far less important than what you did during that time.

Shorter bursts of higher intensity effort followed by brief recovery periods is much more effective for fat loss. With interval training workouts you’ll burn calories both during the workout and post-workout, up to 24-36 hours after. Plus you’ll have the benefit of fat burning hormones circulating in your bloodstream.

I think a big reason for this cardio misconception is because a lot of people, especially females, can lose weight when they’re younger by doing tons of cardio and restricting calories.

You can get away with this in your twenties, but when you get into your thirties, forties, and beyond, natural hormonal shifts and changes in your metabolism make this strategy extremely counterproductive.

For those individuals who succeed with losing weight with long duration cardio workouts and starvation type diets, they typically will have the “skinny-fat” appearance. Some body fat is lost but it comes at a significant expense in sacrificing lean muscle.

This person may look somewhat thin but they’ll have poor muscle definition, belly fat, and an overall soft appearance.

The bottom line is that more is NOT better when it comes to cardio workouts.

In the beginning you can build what’s called an aerobic base by doing low-intensity aerobic exercise (walking, elliptical, stationary bike, etc) for 30-45 minutes but it’s just a means of preparing your body to do higher intensity workouts.

Individuals who are more overweight can greatly benefit from doing low intensity aerobic exercise several times a week combined with resistance training.

While progressing to higher intensity cardio workouts will always be more effective from a fat loss perspective, the more weight you have to lose, the more you can benefit from doing longer aerobic workouts in the beginning.

For these individuals the resistance workouts can be progressed earlier to higher intensity routines by doing burst training and metabolic finishers. This is simply because it can counterproductive for heavier individuals to run or do high impact cardio due to joint compression.

As weight is lost and the joints become stronger due to the resistance training, they can progress first to low-impact interval training and then to running later down the line.

It’s important to note that you NEVER have to be able to run to do interval training for cardio.

There are several ways you can complete interval training for cardio that don’t involve joint compression like rowing, swimming, and cycling just to name a few.

I’ve never found it necessary for anyone to do sixty minute cardio workouts regardless of their body weight or specific goals.

Thirty minutes of cardiovascular activity done 4-5 times per week combined with a supportive nutrition diet can always get you where you want to go.

As you get stronger and in better conditioning you’ll want to progress to doing two or three of those workouts each week with interval training strategies. The beauty of these workouts is they’ll never take any longer than 20-30 minutes to complete.

They’re designed to stimulate your central nervous system with short bursts of all-out effort, and not be done for long periods of time. In fact, trying to doing interval training for longer than 20-30 minutes will only decrease your results.

I alluded to the fact earlier that there’s more to the fat loss equation than just cardio. What I didn’t know with the original question is how much, or if all, the person was doing resistance training. I’ll have to follow up with this person in order to give a full recommendation.

For best results you’ll want to be doing 2-3 days of resistance training each week combined with your cardio workouts. Of course, for optimal results you’ll want the resistance workouts to follow burst training principals to get the hormonal benefits.

Following a Primal Blueprint diet or modified version of such combined with burst training 2-3 times per week and cardio in some fashion for 4-5 times per week will be the most effective fat loss strategy.

Doing cardio alone for long duration workouts only leads to the person becoming what I refer to as a “sugar burner.” They burn a lot of sugar (glycogen as stored carbohydrate) during the workouts and replenish stores with their meals without ever tapping into stored body fat.

The most important lesson I can give you here is that fat loss is 100% controlled by the hormonal states in your body. Exercise and diet (what you choose for both) are ways to set the hormonal conditions in your body for fat burning instead of fat storing.

It’s way more than just a matter of restricting calories with your diet and trying to burn a ton off during workouts. Your nutrition needs to be supporting metabolically active lean muscle with is the ONLY place your body can burn fat for fuel.

Support your muscle and provide your body with adequate fuel to complete short bursts of high intensity effort and you’ll be on your way.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides fitness consulting in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation. You can receive a FREE, no-obligations (2) session personal training trial and consultation to experience the difference for yourself.

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Category: Fitness Training.