I cannot tell you how many times I have been told by a new patient how frustrated he or she is because they have been "killing cardio", yet has seen little or no weight loss results. My response is always the same, work smarter not harder. So many of us struggle mentally with accepting that more exercise does not always lead to the results we want. Here are a few mistakes many people make with one of the most common modes of cardio, running.
Cardio Mistake No. 1: Same 'ole same 'ole The human body is smarter than many realize. It's designed to be as efficient as possible, so if you do the same thing over and over again, your body adapts and able to do the same work with less effort. This applies to your running workouts too. Not only will your runs start to feel more effortless, but your metabolism literally learns and reacts so that fewer calories are needed to perform the same exercise. Research conducted at the University of Tampa found that doing steady state cardio—such as running on the treadmill for 45 minutes at a consistent, moderate pace helps out with weight loss only initially. Subjects lost a few pounds during the first week and then reached a plateau. Why? Within one week, their metabolism had adjusted and now they didn't need to work as hard to complete the same amount of exercise. Interestingly, with cardio, you can do the cardio queen thing on the treadmill for 30 minutes at a lower intensity and burn 200 calories—or you can just eat 200 fewer calories per day. The result is the same. However, with weight training calories you burn are not limited to what you do in the gym, the calorie burning effects carry over outside of the gym as well. So why not get off the monotonous mill and pick up some iron? And if your slightly intimidated by the dumbbells, you can always lift your own body weight.
Cardio Mistake No. 2: Longer, Not Faster Intensity is the key. Most people who run pick a pace that they can maintain for 30 minutes or more. While this is great for endurance, it's not so great for fat loss. Instead, incorporating cardio sessions of shorter bursts of high intensity followed by lower intensity recovery periods have been shown to burn more fat. This is because the process of sprinting causes your body to respond in a similar way to what occurs during weight training. Your body needs to replenish it's ATP (energy), convert lactic acid that's produced during exercise into glucose, and restore your blood hormone levels after an intense workout. All of those processes mean your body works harder and burns more fat. This does not happen during steady-state aerobics.
Cardio Mistake No. 3: Too Much Focus on Calories Burned One of the most common weight-loss mistakes is believing that the majority of the calories you burn results from exercise. This is a dangerous misunderstanding. Simply being alive—sleeping, standing, eating, thinking—requires a tremendous amount of energy. The number of calories you burn at the gym actually pales in comparison to normal functioning and your daily activities that are not exercise based. Does that mean there's no need to hit the gym? Of course not. Exercise has many health benefits, but the type of exercise you perform in the gym will influence how many calories you burn outside of it. Running will burn calories, but sprinting or lifting weights will result in more muscle. And the more muscle you have on your body (no—not the "bulky" muscle of bodybuilders), the more calories your body burns just functioning.
Cardio Mistake No. 4: You Don't Change Your Mode of Cardio of Cardio Who doesn't want their workouts to be as efficient as possible? It makes sense that you would want to do the type of training that will help you reach your fat loss goals in the least amount of time. If you are a long-distance lover or cardio queen, here is the bad news: Longer duration, lower intensity cardio impairs strength and muscle growth. Specifically, during your treadmill workout, even if you increase the intensity and run on an incline, research suggests that cycling is still better for gaining muscle and burning fat. All of this is not to say that there aren't any benefits to endurance exercise. This is about finding the most efficient way to lose fat. And if you're short on time, you might be better served by high intensity cycling as opposed to going for a long run.
Cardio Mistake #5: Too Much! That number on the scale might not be changing because you're doing too much cardio. While this isn't a problem for the majority of people struggling to drop a few pounds research also suggests that fat loss has been slowed by doing too much. Exercise is definitely a component of a healthy life, but it's still stress on your body. And the demands of that stress impact your hormones, which also control your ability to lose fat. More specifically, the hormone cortisol is released when you exercise. All cortisol is not bad (despite what late-night TV and supplement ads might have you believe), but chronic stress and chronic cortisol can lead to insulin resistance which forces you to store abdominal fat. Research published in the journal Hormone Research found that long distance running—like that done in endurance runners—causes a sustained increase in cortisol. And this increase in cortisol for long period of times can lead to more inflammation, slower recovery, breaking down your muscle tissue, building up fat, and even harm your immune functioning.
Additionally, if you suffer from too much stress, whether induced from too much exercise or recovery with improper nutrition, you can harm your thyroid and lower your metabolic rate. This makes weight loss more difficult. If you're doing 30 minutes to an hour of cardio per day, you're doing plenty for fat loss. If you're running two to four hours per day and aren't losing weight, you may want to try reducing your running duration, add some short intervals of high intensity cardio as well as some resistance training. Just try it. You have nothing to lose but fat! :)
Need help with changing your lifestyle and improving your health without drugs? We can do that. Dr Cheryl Kent is your Winter Park and Orlando Chiropractic Physician, Nutritionist and Exercise Physiologist dedicated to helping patients and their families Create Balance, so that they can Live Well. Book online or contact our office today.
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