A conversation I have with members at SPS with some frequently revolves around the request for more cardio programming to lose body fat. I’ll ask them if they like doing cardio, which the answer is usually a resounding “No! But I want to lose some weight so I should probably do it.”
I want to dispell of the myth that doing cardio of any nature is required for fat loss. But first, I want to ask people some serious questions about this weight loss desire.
Take an honest look at yourself first
What’s making you say that you want to lose weight? What’s driving this desire? I want people to have a true internal locus of desire for this. Too often people want to shrink their size because they feel they “should” have that as a goal.
A technique used in digging deep into the root of goals is The 5 Questions. Ask them of yourself”: What do you want to do? Lose weight. Why? Because I have weight to lose. Why do you say that? Because some things I do are harder when I’m bigger. How do you notice that? I get out of breath really fast when trying to play with my kids.
Generally if you can get through five levels of why, you have a pretty good indication of what’s driving your decision to make a change. THEN you can decide if cardio is truly the best route to get there. In the above example, it probably would be. More conditioning would help a parent keep up with their kids.
It’s also important to understand that everything has a trade off. Check out this infographic from Precision Nutrition. Are you a person who is willing to have these trade offs? Do you live a lifestyle that would support the goal you want?
Okay, so you still want to lose body fat.
But if you’re already entrenched in a workout routine that has you at the gym 3+ times a week, there are some changes you should make that DON’T involve more time exercising. In fact, if some of these other approaches aren’t in place, adding more exercise could be counter productive.
What is your sleep and stress management routine?
This could really boil down to sleep, as if sleep isn’t in place, no amount of meditation and gratitude journaling is going to counteract the chemical maelstrom that’s happening in your body.
If you’re getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night, you’re only hamstringing your attempts at fat loss. Lack of sleep raises cortisol levels, lowers glucose sensitivity, messes with your satiety hormones, not to mention all the other mental acuity issues that arise and compound over time.
I won’t get into all the science and biology here, but the book “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker (Amazon) details the importance of sleep exquisitely.
You should be giving yourself 8 hours of what he calls “sleep opportunity” - no lights, no screens, no books, no TV, complete darkness, in bed - every night to reach for that 7+ hours of sleep a night. Under 7 hours of sleep and you start to see severe drop off in lots of the benefits.
Be honest about your alcohol intake
I’ve TOTALLY been guilty of this one.
I like a glass of wine at the end of the day, but over time my pours got more and more generous. One day I measured my typical pour and I was looking at nearly 12 ounces of wine! (Those larger, fancy glasses can really be deceiving.) Not only is that A LOT of calories for the end of the day (7 calories per gram of alcohol), alcohol messes with your circadian rhythms and sleep cycles, whether you feel it or not.
I have no doubt that there are lots of people that fall into that same boat.
Then there is the weekend drinker. The “I don’t drink Monday through Friday, so what’s 2 drinks (or five) now?” For most of us, we’re not mentally calculating those calories in with the food we ate, never mind any mixers in those drinks.
Then, in both cases, since the body treats alcohol as a toxin, the liver will metabolize ethanol before turning its attention to any fats, protein, or carbs in our system that need processing. (Just deal with the personification, we’re talking in plain terms here.) I know I’m more likely to be drinking wine with a meal or having my whiskey with a snack. That food isn’t getting turned into usable sources of energy, and instead will be stored as fat.
Are you truly aware, like, honestly mindful and conscious, about how much you’re eating?
Humans SUCK at estimating their food intake.
Like, really, truly suck.
And experienced dieters and registered dieticians are better, but not THAT much better.
In this study scientists looked at 10 people who were considered diet resistant. In all 10 people, their metabolism was within 5% of what would be predicted based on body composition. Also, in all 10 they “underreported their actual food intake by an average (+/- SD) of 47 +/- 16 percent and over reported their physical activity by 51 +/- 75 percent.”
There are a lot of “coaches” out there that want to espouse the beauty of intuitive eating, but everything about how our modern society is constructed, from how much we sit, to how we get around, to how we acquire food, and how food is engineered to make us crave more, go against our abilities to be intuitive about our bodies. It’s a nice, feel good idea, but unreasonable without some baseline controls and a modicum of experience.
This doesn’t mean you have to weigh and measure everything, and this doesn’t mean you can’t ever eat out. For most people, you can use your hand as a guide to portions sizes: here is another great article with imagery from Precision Nutrition on how to do that.
Caveat: this mostly serves as a starting point. If it is drastically different in portions than from what you normally eat, make the changes gradually. Also, if you find you start losing weight too fast, yes that is a thing, take a step back and add some calories back in.
Finally, what activities are you already doing? Can you maximize on those?
The best exercise is the one you will do regularly.
So if you like doing cardio, cardio your heart out. There are lots of great benefits to doing it! Lots of great benefits that, if you enjoy it, will pay off in ways that have nothing to do with calorie burn and weight loss!
But if you already have a fitness routine, and you don’t like going on long runs or sitting on a bike for however long someone random deems necessary, DON’T BOTHER. Find something that you can stick to and do more of THAT.
After you first line up the previous points, of course.
Before you start gritting your teeth and trying to force your way into exercises that you hate, won’t last, and psychologically might make you decide “I deserve a treat for doing that,” get the rest of your lifestyle lined up. It’s likely you don’t actually need more cardio.
But as always, if you like cardio, knock yourself out!