Cardio For Fat Loss – Should You Worry About It?

Running a race

Ok, so stay with me here. I’m going to get detailed and there will be numbers so don’t get all weird like this is a 3rd-grade math class and you’re being reminded of the class bully.

Fat loss is rather simple. It’s all about calories in vs out. Sorry, I know this can be controversial. Why? Because people want to sell books and programs that say scary stuff that removes personal responsibility and makes you feel special. But I digress.

Cardio is amazing, first and foremost. What isn’t great about cardio is when it’s used simply as a fat loss tool. Hear me out for a second. I’m not saying the calories burned are not valuable. What I am saying is the number of calories you’re burning are often not as cut and dry as you may think.

Pretend you burn 400 calories on a run. Maybe this is a 5k and your Fitbit is congratulating your efforts. “Yesss 400 calories burned. Pizza time”. That last comment is a whole other topic itself. What I want to focus on here is the net benefit of the cardio strictly from a fat loss perspective. For simplicity’s sake let’s assume you did actually burn 400 calories on the run. You busted your ass and you hated it but you know you have to do these runs and burn 2800 calories to reach your fat loss goals.

Or do you?

Maybe you will, maybe you won’t, depending on your diet. So, think about this. Pretend you didn’t do it. Pretend you stayed home, watched tv, cleaned up a little, played some video games, chased your kids, whatever. Literally anything else but the tough cardio session that you hate.

How many calories would we burn if we didn’t do it? That’s the million-dollar question. Opportunity cost and the value of not doing something vs doing it. The net benefit in the case of doing the run is most likely close to half the calories. All that effort, all that stress, all the prep for potentially 1400 extra calories burned. Or, one less meal out. A home-cooked meal vs a fast food pick-up. A night of 2 drinks vs appetizers and 2 drinks.

My main point is this – in order for people to hit their goals, they can’t hate the methods that get them there. Sure, these runs add a little bit of a net benefit but it’s minimal when you think about it. We’re going to burn a bunch of calories just living so maybe we don’t put so much stock in cardio simply from a fat loss perspective. Do it because you enjoy it and you’re getting a health benefit. Let the food handle fat loss, the weights handle body composition, and cardio help in the recovery and health.

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