Today we are talking about cardio, specifically some common misconceptions that people have about cardio exercise. There’s so much information out there that it can sometimes be challenging to navigate what is fact versus fiction, and I want to help! In this post, I am debunking five myths about cardio exercise so that they don’t slow down your fitness journey.
Five Myths About Cardio Exercise
1. Cardio alone is the key to fat loss.
There is so much confusion out there about which method of exercise is more effective for fat loss: cardio or strength training. Cardio has its benefits (see #5), but without a strength training component incorporated into your workout regimen, it’s going to be pretty difficult to build the lean muscle mass necessary for that “toned” physique that many of my clients tell me they are after. Lifting weights not only helps shape your body so you look and feel strong (note: strong, not bulky), but your body will also keep burning calories even after you are done working out. Bonus! On the flip side, when you do steady state cardio, your body stops burning calories when you are done with your workout. Meh.
The other thing that happens when focusing on cardio alone is that your body basically becomes really, really good at doing long bouts of cardio. This might sound like a good thing, and requiring less energy to get more done is great if you are training for a race or an endurance event, but for those focusing on weight loss, doing the same cardio routine over and over will only subject your body to what it’s already become efficient doing. Strength training is what will give your body different loads to adapt to, different ranges of motion to work through, and different muscle groups to target.
Finally, cardio alone burns both fat and muscle, so if in your quest to lose body fat you lose too much muscle mass with it from doing cardio, cardio, cardio, you actually could slow your metabolism and end up with a smaller and softer version of yourself instead of leaner. Less muscle = lower metabolism.
For these reasons, if your goal is fat loss for a lean physique, I recommend prioritizing strength training with heavy weights 2-3x per week over cardio alone. Remember that the term heavy is relative, so choose weight that is challenging for you!
2. The longer your cardio sessions are, the more effective the workout.
I know a lot of people who struggle with the mindset that if a workout isn’t an hour long, then it doesn’t count. I totally understand why this misconception is out there (don’t more minutes equal more calories burned overall?), but I like to remind myself and my clients that longer isn’t better, better is better. Methods like high intensity interval training, or HIIT for short, will be more effective than steady state cardio and will allow you to burn more calories both during and after your workout. Similar to what your body experiences after lifting, HIIT will also give you that after burn effect.
To differentiate between steady state and HIIT, I’ll give you a couple of examples of each. Steady state cardio might look like 30-60+ minutes on a machine going at the same pace for the entire duration of your workout or heading out for a long run. HIIT might look like 20 minutes on a machine of choice alternating between 30 seconds of really hard work and 30 seconds of rest or jump roping for ten rounds of 40 seconds on and 20 seconds off.
3. If doing both cardio and strength in the same day, cardio should be done first.
I love this one because it’s like the chicken and the egg question: which comes first? I don’t really know where the idea that doing your cardio first is best came from, but my personal opinion is that there is no right or wrong answer to this. I recommend starting with either 1) whichever one is more aligned with your fitness goals, or 2) personal preference. For example, if you hit the treadmill for an intense HIIT cardio session, you might not have much left in the tank to tackle lifting afterward. If you are prioritizing strength training, I’d start with that and tack on a shorter HIIT or a quick finisher after your lift, and save any longer cardio for separate days. On the flip side, perhaps the thought of getting on a cardio machine is too boring after you’ve already done your strength workout. It just depends on you. My own preference is doing strength work first so that I make sure it remains a priority in my workout regimen.
4. If you do enough cardio, you don’t have to pay attention to nutrition.
This would be nice, huh!? For those of us who have fitness down, but aren’t necessarily watching what we eat in the kitchen, be reminded that exercise alone isn’t the only piece of the puzzle when it comes to fat loss. In fact, even though I always tote strength training as one of the top components, nutrition is actually number one. Often times when people start up a new workout routine, a common side effect is an increase in appetite and a subsequent increased caloric intake. Keep yourself honest in the kitchen because not only do most of us overestimate how many calories we burn during our workouts, we sometimes underestimate how many calories we’re eating as well.
Also, I always recommend that people separate their exercise and food. Don’t workout just so you can “earn” the right to enjoy a piece of candy or have a margarita. Exercise because you want to exercise, because it makes you feel strong, it’s healthy, and because our bodies deserve to move. Eat when you’re hungry or want to have an experience around food. Do both in moderation, but not because of one another. Pay attention to both, but separate them at the same time. This is so important to mindset around diet and exercise!
5. Cardio is a waste of time.
There are a LOT of fitness professionals out there who hate on cardio to the point of claiming it isn’t needed at all. I don’t believe that. I stand true to my values of not ever judging anyone’s choice of exercise, and I am a strong believer in something always being better than nothing. For the truly de-conditioned, walking and low impact cardio is a great place, maybe even the only place, to start. I also think cardio, in its traditional sense, has a lot of benefits. It can increase our stamina, it’s therapeutic, it often involves activities we enjoy such as going for a long run or dancing, and it gets us up and moving. If you love time to yourself to zone out on the elliptical, do it. If you love Zumba, do Zumba.
I will never tell someone that cardio is a complete waste of time, but I will let them know about better ways to incorporate cardio if their goals are aligned with fat loss/a toned physique.