The fitness industry is notorious for making wild and unfounded claims about the best ways to build muscle, get a flat belly, and even the best type of cardio for weight loss.
In fact, the topic of which method of cardio is most effective for weight loss has been all the rage in the last few years.
For years we were told we had to do long, chronic cardio sessions, such as jogging on the treadmill for 45 minutes, to lose our unwanted body fat.
And then a few years ago, some of the fitness professionals on the internet really started going against the grain and telling people that high intensity interval training was the only way to burn fat.
So which is it?
The mixed messages have surely led to thousands of people just like you making the mistake of choosing the wrong method of cardio to reach their weight loss goals.
Let’s take a closer look and see if we can get to the bottom of this.
For years we were told that we should be doing long, slow cardio activities for fat loss.
The reason for this is because, in theory, we burn primarily fat for fuel when exercising at lower intensity activities, such as walking.
When we do higher intensity work, such as sprint intervals on a stationary bike, your primary source of energy comes from carbohydrates (in the storage form of glycogen stored within your muscles).
According to conventional wisdom, this would mean that to lose your unwanted body fat you should spend the majority of your exercise time doing activities that put you in the fat burning zone – walking, bike riding, jogging, etc.
However, after years and years of following this advice people just weren’t losing the weight they wanted.
Over the last few years, research has discovered that using high intensity cardio intervals, despite doing so would use carbohydrates as the primary fuel source, were more effective at burning fat.
You see, fat burns in the flame of carbohydrate. Meaning, the amount of fat being burned at any given time is directly related to the rate of carbohydrate metabolism.
Without totally geeking out on you, if there’s no carbohydrates being used for energy then fat can’t take advantage of the energy pathways carbs use and they also won’t be burned.
That’s where high intensity interval training comes into play because you’re sure to use your glycogen (carbohydrate) stores during the exercise intervals, thus allowing far burning to follow. It’s a superior method of exercise for losing your unwanted body fat.
Now, you might be thinking that, if high intensity interval training burns more fat, then that’s all you should do because long, slow cardio is ineffective for weight loss.
If that’s what you’re thinking, then you’d be wrong.
The truth is that you losing weight isn’t as simple as doing one form of cardio exercise and completely ignoring the other. There’s room for both methods of activity in a solid fitness program.
The major benefit of doing long, slow activities each day is massive and does have a direct relationship with the amount of fat you store and burn.
Walking everyday has been shown to decrease triglyceride levels and increase HDL levels (aka: good cholesterol). It has also been shown to increase your sensitivity of insulin to do its job and clear glucose from the blood.
If insulin stops being effective, you will not lose weight and will be well on the road to a life of diabetes.
So, while doing long, slow cardio doesn’t have as great of a direct effect on fat loss as high intensity exercise does, it still plays an extremely important role and should not be excluded from your exercise program.
When working with my weight loss clients to reach their goals, I always present their cardio workout prescription to them like this:
1. Long, slow cardio
Activities such as walking, biking and swimming should be done every single day for everyone. In my opinion, this is non-negotiable, no matter what your weight loss goals are.
These types of physical activities are at the very core of our nature – we were designed to move slowly in this manner all day long. Think about it. Back in primal times your only goal was to find your next meal. That was often accomplished by wondering around the forest, not sitting on a log all day.
If you are currently sedentary, your first goal should be doing anything you can to minimize the amount of sitting that you do each day. You have to look for ways to increase the amount of walking you do.
Your ultimate goal should be a minimum of 10,000-12,000 steps per day. You can download free apps onto your smartphone that will help you track the number of steps you take each day.
Using a pedometer or one of the free apps I just mentioned, record the number of steps you take on a normal day. Do this for three days in a row and use the average number of steps as your baseline.
To the baseline add 2,000 to it. This is your first step goal.
You should continue to add 2,000 steps to your goal in this manner until you reach a minimum of 10,000 steps per day.
If you are currently sedentary and work to meet the 10,000 steps per day goal, you can absolutely lose weight. You will be priming your fat burning pathways and clearing your blood glucose like a champ.
However, once you meet this goal and continue being active each day in this manner it is likely that your weight loss will plateau. In this case, it may be time to incorporate high intensity interval training into your fitness plan.
2. High Intensity Interval Training
Once you have incorporated long, slow activities into your exercise plan and can walk 10,000 steps every day, you should have built a significant enough fitness foundation for you to start doing some higher intensity cardio intervals.
For beginners, it is best if you start using a stationary bike as it appears to be the safest method of exercise when first starting out.
After a 5 minute warm up, simply increase the resistance and speed for 30 seconds followed by a 30 second rest phase with little resistance and speed.
You should be working as hard as possible during the exercise interval and doing barely any work during the recovery interval.
Your goal should be to continue doing these intervals for 20 minutes. However, when first starting out it’s ok to start with 4, 6 or even 8 minutes. As your fitness level improves so will your ability to do this type of exercise longer.
Start out with only 1-2 workouts like this each week and work up to 3-4 per week as your fitness improves.
If you’d like to learn more about the truth about cardio, including the key research findings on the topic and done-for-you workouts you can do, I discuss this in more detail in this blog post:
In summary, please don’t make the mistake of doing only one form of exercise and totally excluding another because some fitness guru told you to do so.
The truth is, there’s a place for both long, slow cardio and high intensity interval training in a solid exercise program designed for weight loss.
Now I have a question for you…
What is your primary form of exercise? Have you been focusing on only one form of cardio while ignoring the other?
Share your story in the comments below.