It’s a question that comes up time and time again when it comes to training for weight loss: exactly how much cardio do you need to do, and how often?
Whether you love it or hate it, cardio is one of the necessary weapons that fuels weight loss. Most of us know what these are, but cardio workouts can be defined as moderate-to-intense physical activities that often involve moving most or all of your body, which gets your heart racing and oxygen pumping. Classic examples include running, battle ropes, swimming and sprinting, boxing, etc…
Working out for weight loss usually takes a more structured approach than a few runs or swims per week, however. Which is why we’re going to dive into not only how often you should be doing cardio to burn fat, but also the most effective forms to do.
How Does Cardio Help With Weight Loss?
It helps to understand a little of how cardio works to burn fat (this also serves as motivation for when you might not be feeling like getting in a session!).
So: a huge component of weight loss is establishing a calorie deficit. If you’re burning more calories than you consume, you’ll be in a calorie deficit, which leads to weight loss. On the other hand, if you eat more calories than you burn, your body begins to store the excess as fat so that it can be used later on (aka: weight gain).
Cardio is one major way you can amp up your calorie burn. It’s a high-energy activity that requires a ton of calories to perform. If you’re already eating on a calorie deficit, cardio takes that deficient up a notch, so you don’t have to drop too much from diet alone.
One pound equates to about 3,500 calories, so technically you would need to burn that many calories in order to lose one pound. This is why you’ll see recommendations to be in a daily calorie deficient in order to “lose one pound per week,” since the deficit adds up to those 3,500 calories.
However, calorie deficits aren’t necessarily the end-all, be-all of weight loss. Certain forms of cardio such as HIIT, which we get into below, not only burn calories, but also improve metabolic efficiency in a way to can optimize long-term fat burn better than other forms of cardio.
What Kind of Cardio is Best for Weight Loss?
There are two different kinds of cardio you can be doing for weight loss: HIIT and steady-state.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a form of cardio that requires very high levels of energy and brings your heart rate close to its maximum. They are done in short “burst” intervals, followed by breaks in-between. This might look like:
- Jumping rope
- Circuit training
As an example: if you were using sprints as a form of HIIT, you’d sprint all-out for 15-30 seconds, walk or jog for 30-60 seconds, and repeat for a total of 15 minutes.
Steady-state cardio is a more moderate-intensity exercise where you do aerobic activity over a sustained period of time with your heart rate high but not maximized. For example,
Both forms of cardio have their place in a solid weight loss plan. If you want the calorie burn with a boost in metabolic efficiency, HIIT is an excellent choice. Data suggests that you burn more calories doing HIIT exercises vs steady-state cardio. [*] As a bonus, doing HIIT also creates what is termed the “afterburn effect.” This is the phenomena that occurs after intense workouts that causes you to burn more calories at rest – sometimes even up to 48 hours after the workout!
It’s no wonder, either – the level of energy that goes into sprinting, jumping, and performing movements in bursts gets close to maximizing your heart rate, which works your body hard.
That’s not to say that steady-state exercise isn’t good for weight loss. Going on long runs was the standard for weight-loss activity for a long time, and with good reason. One study showed that participants who performed aerobic activities like jogging and walking on a treadmill were able to burn up to 600 calories per session, contributing to a significant calorie deficit. [*] Not to mention, they also train your endurance.
On the flip side, steady-state cardio does have its limitations. It takes longer to burn a significant amount of calories at a moderate level of activity. It would also be hard to rely only on steady-state cardio for weight loss since your body can get used to this sustained level of activity. You’d eventually need to be upping the intensity (for example, increasing your speed or performing the exercise for longer periods) in order to burn the same amount of calories.
Since HIIT burns more calories over a shorter period of time, you may want to focus more on this form of cardio to really target your weight loss, but also incorporate a jog or other steady-state activity in the week to let your body recover while still burning calories.
How Much Cardio Should I Be Doing?
The general recommendation for how often we should be doing cardio is at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week, or at least 75 minutes of more high-intensity cardio. [*]
In reality, it really depends on what type of cardio you’re doing as to how much actual “time” you need to devote to it. A HIIT session might take only 15 minutes and have massive metabolic benefits that fuel weight loss and burn calories, while a longer, say, hour-long run may burn a big chunk of calories for the day.
A huge consideration to keep in mind with any weight loss strategy is to make sure you’re keeping your diet extremely clean. The saying, “abs are made in the kitchen,” couldn’t possibly be more true.
The fact remains that whatever you do, know that you can’t out-run or out-cardio a bad diet packed with excess calories.
A good starting point with cardio is to use is to supplement your strength training and interval circuits: do a HIIT session 3 times per week, then 1-2 longer hiking or running sessions per week. Mix up the style with each to keep your body guessing (aka: to keep it burning calories). For instance, try jump rope instead of sprints for one session, or a more challenging hike instead of your normal jog.
It might also be helpful to use a smartwatch or other fitness-tracking app to keep track of approximately how many calories you’re burning and see if you should adjust up or down.
And P.S.: Don’t forget to take occasional rest days to let your body recover, especially after you do HIIT.
What’s your favorite form of cardio? Let me and the family know below!