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If there is one part of our training that most people HATE, it's the aerobic exercise, or "cardio" that we perform in order to shed fat and look our best. We would rather be heaving huge weights or eating a high-protein meal than spinning our wheels, literally, on the exercise bike or treadmill for half an hour or more at a time.
It's boring, it's time-consuming, and it makes us wonder if it's all worth it, but we keep at it because we "have" to in order to lose fat.
But have you ever stop to wonder if you REALLY need cardio to lose fat? Is it the best way to drop the pounds, or are there other options?
Let's find out.
The Mathematics of Fat Loss
The basic idea behind any theory of fat loss is that you need to create a caloric deficit, somehow. While there is debate about just how much of a deficit you need to lose, say one pound of fat, let's use the common rule-of-thumb number of 3500 calories.
Under this assumption, if you can create a 100-calorie deficit each day for a month (give or take), you'll lose a pound of fat.
Now, let's say that your diet includes an afternoon snack consisting of a cup of coffee and one of those 100-calorie snack packs of Oreos. If you drop the cookies from your snack and keep everything else about your diet the same, then you've reached your deficit goal.
This would represent an entirely dietary approach to fat loss.
At the other end of the spectrum, you could add enough exercise to expend an additional 100 calories a day. Weight training burns some calories, but the majority of you are already doing too much lifting already, so adding more volume is not a great idea.
That leaves lower-intensity activities like running, walking, or cycling to help make your deficit goals. A 180-pound person will generally burn somewhere around 100 calories for each mile walked or jogged, so, if you eat that snack pack, it's going to cost you a mile of hoofing it.
Just in terms of caloric deficit, many people will find it easier to cut the junk food from their diet, at least at first, than to add more activity. That approach ignores potential health benefits of aerobics, though, and may not be the best approach for everyone.
What Does Science Say About Cardio?
Beyond the sheer math involved in creating a calorie deficit, it would be helpful to have some real-world examples to guide our fat-loss efforts. Fortunately, scientists are also interested in fat loss, and their research can help us figure out this puzzle.
In 2012, for example, cardiologists from the Duke University Medical Center undertook a study to compare the effects of aerobic exercise, weight lifting, and a combination of the two on lean and fat body mass, as well as fat loss, among a group of 119 sedentary and overweight or obese adults.
Over the course of eight months, each subject performed either resistance training, aerobic training, or a combination of the two. At the end of the study, researchers found that the aerobic training group and the combined group lost roughly the same amount of fat, while the weight-training-only group lost significantly less.
Likewise, the combined and weights-only group gained significantly more lean mass than the cardio-only group, leading researchers to conclude that a combined protocol is the best overall approach to exercise when improved body composition is the goal.
A similar study from Australian scientists found that the combination of weight training and aerobics yielded better results over 12 weeks than either cardio or weights alone. The subjects in this case were also overweight or obese, and, not only did the combined group show more favorable body composition than the other two groups, they also realized improvements to their cardiovascular disease risk factors, including enhanced aerobic capacity.
Yes, Cardio Can Help Speed Up Fat Loss
Both the research and practical considerations point to cardio training as a valuable tool in your fat loss efforts. You can only cut "fluff" calories so far until you start eating into the nutrients that are vital for your health.
Anyone with more than a few pounds to lose, then, will eventually reach a point where they need to create a BIGGER caloric deficit than is practical through diet alone. That's where the judicious use of aerobics can help speed the fat-loss process along.