YES YES YES. There is such a thing as too much cardio, especially when we’re talking about targeting for weight loss.
For those of us whom simply love to get out there and hit the pavement and keep hitting the pavement until all our stress and anxiety falls off, this isn’t for you. There are some people—I used to be one of them—for whom the stress relief element of exercise is more beneficial than the weight loss element, specifically if you’re someone who binge eats when you let stress build up too high. If you know you’re one of those people, then don’t sweat it.
However, for those of us who might be trying to shed some body fat, things are a little bit different.
You have to think about what cardio is for the most part, what it does, and what’s most necessary for maintaining your weight once you achieve your goal.
When I first started working out, I used to burn a bajillion calories in a session, and I did it 7 nights a week. My belief was that I’d get on that elliptical, burn 700 calories of fat, and be all set.
Don’t get me wrong, I was marginally successful—losing about 5lbs a month for six months—but, in all honesty, it should’ve been far more than that.
Why wasn’t it?
For starters, when you’re committing yourself to doing cardio sessions with sweaty and heavy breathing that last longer than, say, 25 minutes, your body starts to tap into stored reserves for energy. And, under many circumstances, that would be considered just “fat.”
Except, it’s not.
Before too long, your body also slowly eats away at the muscle you have, as well, which is what exponentially decreases your metabolism, making it harder to maintain your goal once you reach it. As I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, muscle mass on your body is constantly changing and repairing and growing, which are processes that boost your metabolism and, the more muscle mass you have, the higher your metabolism will be. Losing that means you lose a lot of your ability to burn calories, which means you have to eat even less in order to maintain the weight you’ve lost. When you consider the fact that most people, out of habit, begin to make their plates according to how they ate at their old size, having that muscle helps serve as a failsafe. Losing that muscle means you’ll unintentionally gain that weight back quicker than expected.
Secondly, when you do cardio for an extended amount of time—usually around that very 20-25 minute mark and beyond—your body starts recognizing that it’s burning from it’s energy stores (read: body fat), and results in you being starving after your workout is done.
That is why, even though I was grinding it out for an hour a day in the gym, I still wasn’t losing—I was going to the gym, burning 700 calories, then leaving and getting something to eat that measured around 1,100 calories because:
a) I didn’t understand calories as well as I do now. I didn’t understand that the calories I eat matter twice as much as the calories I burn on an elliptical—not just how many, but the kind of calories, as well;
b) I didn’t understand that I was basically burning calories on the elliptical to gorge out on crappy, unsatisfying food that would eventually only become body fat again, instead of helping my body have the nutrients it needs to rebuild and recover. Eating a meal of strictly carbs after a workout is a surefire way to wind up overeating after rigorous exercise because, by definition, it’s nothing more than sugary nonsense. In comparison, vegetables tend to be a blend of carbs, protein, and fiber and meat tends to be protein and fat, making them more filling with fewer calories. A much better post-workout meal;
c) I wasn’t fueling my workouts correctly, helping me reduce the amount of starvation I felt post-workout. Really, in hindsight, I wasn’t fueling them at all. You have to fuel properly before any intense workout, regardless of how long it lasts, so that you have the proper nutrients in the tank to help you repair and recover.
The risk of overeating post-super-strenuous workout is high. It requires seriously strategic eating all day so that your pre- and post-workout meals don’t throw your meal plan off balance. (Yes, that means your pre- and post-workout meals have to be incorporated and included in your daily calorie counts!) Because most people will find this confusing and complicated, combined with the risk to muscle mass, I find that it’s simply not worth it* to do cardio workouts that last longer than 35-45 minutes.
Just get in, get it done, get as much as you can out of that shorter time period, and get out. There’s no need to go forever on that treadmill, and there’s even research that proves that you might be worse off in the end for having done so. Stay dedicated to your meal plan, watch your calories, and be consistent about your training. I promise, your body will thank you for it!
*Now, if you’re training for a race, that’s obviously different. If you’re training for a race, you do what you have to do to accomplish your goal. Endurance training and fueling is very different, and it’s okay to ignore weight loss in favor of successfully finishing or placing in your race!
This has been a huge eye opener. All I do is cardio at the gym and would feel so hungry after and so tired! I wasn’t losing anything either. Instead of plodding along on the treadmill for a full hour, would you recommend going at it for 35-45 minutes alone or splitting the 35-45 mins between cardio and strength? Great post!!
My suggestion is always to combine them both in the form of high intensity interval training, and to make sure your before and after-workout nutrition is budgeted into your daily caloric intake!
Wow! Ive been learning a lot since I discovered your blog. Thank you so much.
Thanks so much for the clear explanation. I found your blog while searching for reasons why I should/shouldn’t do so much cardio. I’ve been doing 30 minutes of cardio each time. On alternate days I do weight training. I wasn’t sure whether to increase or reduce the cardio.
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