Row of treadmills seen from users’ waist down. All have runners using treadmills in exercise gear and tennis shoes.

Is cardio for weight loss a scam?

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Swimming. Cycling. Running. Repeat. I’ll be participating in my first Olympic-style triathlon this fall, with several sprint (half-length) triathlons leading up to the big day. I chose this goal for two reasons: first, I love a good physical challenge, and second, I was hoping to shed some pounds I recently gained during grad school.

Preparing for a triathlon meant I had a lot of cardiovascular workouts coming my way, and much of it was new to me. I’ve been a runner for about 10 years, but until recently, my cycling experience was almost exclusively on an indoor bike with lots of flashing lights, pop music, and Lululemon-clad ladies. And swimming…forget about it. I don’t think I’d swum a lap without the help of a lazy river since I was 10 years old.

I thought my new training routine would help me shred the pounds quickly, so I was frustrated that the numbers on the scale were creeping higher and my clothes were getting even tighter.

After months of working out at least six hours a week with disappointing results, I was angry and asking – Is cardio for weight loss a scam?

Turns out the answer is no…but kind of. According to Ginnie Emmott, exercise physiologist and Manager of Folsom Wellness Center at Methodist Dallas, says there’s nothing wrong with the right kind of cardiovascular activity – but the problem is that we cardio queens scam ourselves. Here’s how:

1. The body adapts to exercise, so more work can mean fewer desired results.

“For both cardio and strength training, it’s not always about the duration; it can be about the intensity and variety. Often with cardio, people focus on working out longer, and that can be the downfall,” Emmott says. “If you’re running or cycling at a steady pace for two hours, several days a week, your body will get used to what you’re doing. That means there isn’t much afterburn effect, also known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC. You’ll burn fewer ‘after exercise’ calories because your body does not have to work too hard to return to rest, or homeostasis.”

What is the afterburn effect? Emmott is referring to how high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, can impact your metabolism for hours after a workout is over. “That can be an extra 10 calories per hour for several hours, which really adds up,” Emmott adds.

My scam: By focusing on swimming, cycling, and running longer distances, I wasn’t focusing on picking up the intensity, so I wasn’t getting an after burn effect.

My fix: At least one day each week, I incorporated intervals on a treadmill run, alternating between a base pace of 5 to 6 miles per hour, a push base of 7 to 8 miles per hour, and sprints of 9 miles per hour.

2. We confuse weight loss with fat loss.

“Most of the time when people are talking about weight loss, they’re referring to fat loss because in most situations, you don’t want to lose muscle. The goal is fat loss.” In other words, sometimes your measurements are more important than the scale, and the more muscle you have, the more calories you can burn.

Emmott says it’s important to work strength training into your weekly schedule, and exercises that involve multiple joints at one time, like squats and dead lifts, will help you get that desired afterburn. For an athlete like me, Emmott suggests two to three days of strength training each week and one or two days of HITT cardio, with about 48 hours in between the HITT workouts. She then suggests two days of moderate cardiovascular activity, like jogging, walking, or using the elliptical.

My scam: I knew the importance of strength training, and Pilates and boot camps used to frequent my workout rotation. But when I had to fit three different types of cardio into my world, I gave up the strength training.

My fix: I compromised, even though it didn’t line up with the triathlon training schedules I found online. I incorporated one day of pure strength into my week, typically Pilates. I also turned one of my cardio days into a running-free weight combo day.

My five-day-a week schedule became:

  • Day 1: Bike riding outside for an hour (weather permitting, otherwise an indoor cycling class)
  • Day 2: Strength; typically a 50 minute Pilates class
  • Day 3: 30 minutes running at different intervals for HIIT, 30 minutes lifting free weights
  • Day 4: 45 minutes of swimming
  • Day 5: (if I can fit it in my schedule) – running at different intervals for HIIT for 45 minutes to an hour

3. We use food to reward ourselves for exercise.

Does this sound familiar- You finish a long workout and eat a cheeseburger because you think you burned 1,000 calories, but you really only burned 400? Or you complete a 5k with a friend, and then you reward yourself with brunch? “A lot of people overeat after a long cardio session, and then they undo all that hard work,” Emmott says.

My scam: Guilty. After swim class, I was ravenous afterward and ate everything in sight.

My fix: I typically swim after work, so before leaving work, I ate a snack like a peanut butter with banana or string cheese so I wasn’t starving afterward. Then I focused on more filling, high- protein, high-fiber foods when I got home.

4. Exercise can’t do it alone.

Emmott agrees with the mantra that fat loss is roughly 20 percent exercise and 80 percent what we put in our mouths. “Pay attention to your diet,” she says. “Talk with a registered dietitian or a physician to make sure you’re eating the right foods for you.”

My scam: I’d gotten into some bad eating habits during grad school, and rather than addressing them, I’d just stepped up the exercise. Clearly, that wasn’t working.

My fix: I started paying closer attention to my diet, diligently logging my food intake to prevent sabotaging myself. I didn’t drastically cut calories; I just made sure I was being reasonable – with some occasional splurges.

Within a few weeks of making these changes to my diet and exercise routines, I noticed a difference both on the scale and in my clothes. And even though I didn’t stick to a traditional tri-training schedule, I recently completed my first sprint triathlon with a time that made me proud! I’ll be keeping up these strategies until I hit the rest of my fitness goals.

It’s important to note, I’ve been an athlete my entire life. The schedule I outlined here is intense. If you’re just starting an exercise program, I applaud you, but make sure to check with a doctor first!

Find a doctor to help make sure you’re ready to work on your fitness goals!

About the author

Woman in exercise clothes standing on top of a mountain holding a dogStacy Covitz is the Vice President, Marketing and Public Relations for Methodist Health System for Methodist Health System. She oversees the public relations, community relations, and content strategy for the system’s wholly- owned campuses. Before working in marketing, Stacy spent nearly 15 years as a news producer. She has a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri and an MBA from the University of Kansas. Stacy is passionate about exercise, recently completing two triathlons. Her other loves are travel, theater, Kansas City-area sports, and her dogs. On weekends, you can find her on Dallas walking trails or patios with her Shih Tzu, Maddie, and her Schnoodle mix, Posey.