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How Much Cardio Should I Do to Lose Weight?

You know that you need to exercise regularly to lose weight, maintain muscle, and promote your general health and wellbeing. However, figuring out the specifics of a workout can be confusing for newcomers and veteran athletes alike.  One of the most confusing aspects of any workout is cardio. Cardio is an important piece of any exercise regimen, but there is a great deal of misinformation regarding how much you actually need to do to not only shed the pounds but to stay healthy as well. Here’s a closer look at cardio, how much of it you need to do, and tips for losing weight.


Understanding Cardio


Cardiovascular exercises are designed to strengthen your overall cardiovascular system, which comprises your heart and blood vessels. Cardio generally comprises any form of endurance exercise that makes your heart beat faster and encourages blood flow throughout your system, which means more oxygen, nutrients and vitamins delivered to muscles and tissue. Think of it this way: all your muscles need exercise. Your heart is the most important muscle of all, and cardio helps to make it stronger.


While many forms of exercise cause a faster heartbeat, cardio specifically refers to exercises that increase your pulse by at least 50 percent of your maximum heart rate. Most cardio exercises comprise large muscle movements performed over a long period of time. Some of the most common cardio exercises include:


  • Walking
  • Jogging/running
  • Riding a bike
  • Swimming
  • Jumping rope
  • Rowing


How Much Cardio Do You Need?


Your cardio needs tend to differ based on your personal health and what you want out of it. Most people perform cardio to lose weight and to improve overall health. The idea is that you burn more calories doing cardio. Weight loss mainly focuses on creating a calorie deficit. That means either eating fewer calories overall or burning more calories than you take in.


At the same time, too much of anything, even cardio, can be bad. In reality, overworking yourself can actually be detrimental to your health. Studies suggest that marathon runners and endurance athletes are at a higher risk of heart dysfunction and arterial plaque than those who did not run at all. Endurance athletes also tend to show more problems in their bones, joints and tendons. Much of this comes from the fact that too much cardio puts excess stress on your heart. Overworking any of your other muscles without rest can also lead to strain and injury, so your heart isn’t any different. The only reason to actually do that much cardio is to improve your heart’s endurance.


What is the proper medium between none and too much? If you’re wondering how long to do cardio, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, adults should get about 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise every week. This means about 30 minutes to an hour of moderate exercise five days a week, or 20 to 60 minutes of vigorous exercise 3 days a week. At minimum, you need about 20 minutes of cardio at least 3 times a week. The sweet spot for losing weight is between one and two hours of cardio per week.


However, that is also assuming you’re not lifting weights or performing any other form of exercise. If you already have a good training regimen, start with about 20 to 30 minutes of cardio up to twice a week. From there you can increase or decrease the time or frequency based on your personal fitness goals.


Cardio and Diet


More than anything, losing weight relies on a mix of diet and cardio. Focusing just on cardio will not get you the weight loss results you want because:


  • Your body can adjust to increased cardio, burning fewer calories over time.
  • You can easily gain back the calories you’ve lost.
  • Cardio exercise does not necessarily maintain your muscle mass and (at worst) may accelerate muscle loss.


Before your cardio workout, fuel up with a light meal that is high in complex carbohydrates and offers a moderate amount of protein, like a protein smoothie with almond milk and fruits. Consume your meal about 60 to 90 minutes before your workout. This gives your body time to digest the food and break it down into the energy and nutrients you need to power your muscles during the workout.


Avoid foods that are high in fats, which take longer to leave your stomach, making you feel sluggish and full and potentially leading to cramps. You should also avoid any raw sugars, candy and other sweets. These will cause an intense sugar rush followed by an immediate crash, which will not feel great when you are on your bike or the gym’s treadmill.


The food you eat after your cardio workout is just as important. Studies show that in the 30 minutes immediately after your workout, your muscles are primed to absorb nutrients more efficiently. Replenish your energy supply with an emphasis on high glycemic carbs, lean sources of protein and electrolytes. Focusing on carbs and proteins after your cardio workout also helps with muscle recovery and can reduce muscle soreness. Aim for a solid protein shake, an omelet or oatmeal with fruit.


Furthermore, make sure you drink plenty of water before, during and after your cardio routine. You will be sweating a lot, and if you are waiting until the end of your workout to gulp down water, you are already putting undue stress on your body and reducing your optimal performance potential. Drinking water will replenish your fluids and keep you and your muscles happy.


Common Cardio Myths and Mistakes


Even understanding the right amount of cardio, there’s still plenty of misunderstandings about how to perform cardio properly. Some common cardio myths and mistakes:


  • Sticking with only one form of cardio – It’s easy to pick a favorite aerobic exercise, whether it’s running on the treadmill or using the bike machine, and stick with it every session, but make sure you incorporate a variety of different exercises. Your body gets used to movements patterns the more you do them. Over time, you will expend less energy, leading to plateauing results. Adding variety helps you work out different joints and muscle groups, which delivers constant results while preventing injuries from overuse.
  • Doing only steady state cardio – Steady state cardio refers to cardio workouts where your heart rate stays steady the entire time. While this is fine for recovery days, without challenging yourself, you probably will not see the results you want. If you find yourself stuck to the treadmill or other cardio machines, try to switch things up by stepping off the machine every few minutes and jumping rope to get your heart rate up again and keep you from wondering “how much cardio should I do?”.
  • Not focusing on your workout – Cardio workouts are notorious for catering to daydreaming, checking your phone or otherwise focusing on something other than what you are doing. Aside from potentially causing injuries, not focusing on your cardio keeps you from exercising as intensely as you should be. You may find yourself slouching, slacking on practicing good form or not working as hard as you should be. While it’s okay to give yourself a mental break during a low-intensity workout session, keep your mind on your workout and avoid looking at your phone.
  • Doing cardio on any empty stomach – Many people dedicated to losing weight swear by fasted cardio training, which involves performing aerobic exercises before you’ve had anything to eat. While it may be successful for some, most people require at least some glucose for fuel, especially if they’re performing high intensity cardio. Your muscles need carbs and fats for energy. With high intensity aerobic exercises, your body may take fat and muscle fragments from your muscles instead of from your fat cells, leading to a loss in muscle mass. Ultimately, doing cardio on an empty stomach can cause you to become hypoglycemic and dehydrated, which can keep you from working out at your full intensity or make you stop early. As mentioned above, make sure to eat something light and easy to digest about 90 minutes before your workout.
  • Focusing entirely on cardio to lose weight – Putting all your workout energy into cardio isn’t just boring, but it’s also tiring for your body and not particularly effective for burning fat. Strength training plays a huge role in weight loss. The more muscle you have, the greater your basal metabolic rate, which is your metabolic rate when you are at rest. That’s because muscle naturally burns more calories than fat. Furthermore, many strength training exercises double as cardio exercise. Incorporating weight lifting, kettlebells and other resistance-based exercises into your workouts will help you burn more efficiently burn fat and shed pounds.


Strength training and cardio go hand in hand. Both can work in conjunction to ultimately help you build muscle and burn fat. Make sure you do your weightlifting first and then perform your aerobic exercises. Going hard on your cardio beforehand usually means you don’t have the fuel to lift weights. Being fresh when you lift will help you progress faster in your workouts as a whole.


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