Hey Jared! I really hate cardio, do I have to do it to lose weight?
Cardio can be a wonderful tool to enhance weight loss by burning extra calories and elevating your metabolism throughout the day, but cardio is not a necessity.
What is required for weight loss is a caloric deficit. Simply burning more calories than you eat each day. Once your body recognizes a lack of food, it will start utilizing stored fat to help you throughout the day.
That’s the basics - simple right? Absolutely.
Easy? Not really.
When I am dieting or when I am helping someone with their own diet, I have a few goals:
1. To be as safe and healthy as possible while dieting.
2. To preserve muscle mass while dieting - I didn’t work my ass off building muscle just to lose it while I’m dieting.
3. To prevent unnecessary hormonal changes.
4. To optimize fat loss however I can while still enjoying my life and being as ‘normal’ as possible.
Those are in order of importance by the way. You’ll notice that fat loss is the lowest priority on that list and that’s for good reason.
To be as safe and healthy as possible while dieting.
I think this one is pretty self explanatory. I’m not going to take risks with myself or with clients that would place their health as less important than their fat loss. This should always be your number one priority above anything else as well. People these days are willing to do just about anything to lose weight without thinking about the health effects or their long term future. Don’t be one of those people - focus on your health above everything else.
To preserve muscle mass while dieting.
As a bodybuilder, my focus was always on building muscle and then stripping away the fat to show the new muscle that has developed from my hard work. That process itself can be incredibly frustrating at times, but very rewarding. So, I put a large emphasis on not losing muscle during a dieting phase (as much as possible).
Beyond my own goals, I believe this should be your second priority below remaining healthy because it fuels and dictates a lot of things relating to your diet.
First, muscle requires a lot of energy. Having more muscle will mean a faster metabolism and generally easier fat loss at a higher caloric range. If you love to eat - like I do - having more muscle allows you to eat more food while dieting. You’re still going to be hungry, but at least you get to taste more of that delicious goodness.
Second, muscle determines your shape as you lose fat. If you’re trying to look ‘fit’, you’ll want to make sure you keep as much muscle as possible while dieting.
To prevent unnecessary hormonal changes.
The majority of people that lose weight through a diet will put that same weight back on within a year. There could be numerous reasons for this - like falling off the wagon and forgetting about your goals - but I think there’s a lot more at play as well.
There are two hormones directly responsible for appetite and metabolism: Ghrelin (appetite) and Leptin (metabolism).
Leptin is found in your fat cells and is highest when you have more body-fat. High levels of leptin signal your body to increase metabolic rate and decrease long-term hunger. You have enough fat and do not need anymore.
Ghrelin is found in your stomach and signals your body when it’s time to eat - like when your stomach is empty.
As you start to lose body fat, leptin decreases and ghrelin increases. This is one of the reasons your metabolism slows down during dieting and hunger skyrockets. From a survival standpoint, this is a wonderful thing. Lose too much weight and suddenly your focus will be on food and your body will do everything it can to preserve the fat (energy) storage you currently have.
That’s why you didn’t think about eating donuts at all until you started losing weight. Now you crave them and it’s all you can think about.
This is a natural process that happens over time and should level out as your diet returns to a maintenance caloric intake and your body has plenty of energy again.
Unfortunately, current research is showing that if you lose weight too quickly these hormones do not go back to normal. In fact, a year later leptin is still decreased and ghrelin is increased. That long-term hunger and slow metabolic rate is going to cause problems.
In those situations the only way to bring those back to balance is to gain the weight back again, but unfortunately most fall off hard and will gain more weight than they lost.
That’s the vicious cycle most people live in, and I call it the ‘Binge and Starve Cycle.’
Avoid this like the plague.
To optimize fat loss however while still enjoying life
The last priority on my list while dieting is to optimize fat loss and find ways to still enjoy life. You don’t want to work to lose weight but constantly spin your wheels, so you need to find ways to make the fat loss process as efficient as possible and still allow you to enjoy the process while you’re doing it.
I’ve given you a lot of my goals while dieting, but I haven’t given you a plan of attack or really justified my answer for cardio yet. Here’s a hint: the tortoise always wins.
1. Don’t do anything extreme or stupid. Nicotine can help control your appetite, but you’re not going to take up smoking for that reason. The rest of your diet and lifestyle should follow suit for doing things with common sense.
2. Make weight lifting the focus of your weight loss program. You want to work out in an effort to build muscle so you can protect muscle as much as possible. This also boosts your metabolism much more than cardio does.
3. Balance your diet with the right nutrients (like protein) and enough food so you don’t lose muscle. Provide the nutrients your body needs so you retain as much muscle and can function effectively during your day and workouts.
4. Don’t crash diet - ever. You want to lose weight in a slow and deliberate manner so you do not affect your hormonal balance of leptin and ghrelin long-term. Lose weight too quickly and you’ll risk living the rest of your life feeling like you’re dieting to keep the weight off.
5. Optimize your weight loss and enjoy your life.
The last one is where cardio fits in. For fat loss, cardio is a tool for wasting calories so you can tip the scales in favor of a caloric deficit. It’s not something you should rely on, and it doesn’t burn the fat for you. The only way to burn fat is to be in a caloric deficit, and cardio by itself will not put you there.
Cardio is also not required for a caloric deficit. You can do that just through your dietary measures, but cardio may make it a bit easier for you to burn extra calories while enjoying a little more food.
Other types of cardio like high intensity interval training (HIIT) will boost your metabolism for a longer period of time than steady state cardio. Do not be mistaken - your weight lifting efforts will still boost your metabolism more than cardio ever will. During weight training you are tearing the muscle down and creating a need to utilize nutrients for recovery purposes. HIIT cardio does not create the same boost in your metabolism that weight training does, but can accelerate your results if necessary.
If you truly hate cardio and don’t want to do it - don’t. There’s no reason to force yourself to do something you hate if that means you’re going to stop doing it. I would encourage you to get some cardio in for the other health-related benefits of cardio, not solely for fat loss.
Ultimately, cardio is never a requirement for fat loss and just a way for you to optimize your fat loss.