Is cardio the only way to go for weight loss or is there more to the story?

JC doing some light cardio by walking his dog

Since quarantines were instituted across the globe I’ve noticed more people are outside performing cardiovascular exercise. In this case, by cardiovascular exercise, I mean endurance exercise ranging from low to high intensity for a set time, distance, or interval(s). Predominantly, it seems like walking, jogging, and biking have been the most accessible from my view. Exercise of this nature can be a great way to improve overall health, however, doing this alone may not be the best way to instill desirable long-term weight loss or body composition outcomes; especially when considering making efficient use of your time. 


We know that in order to lose weight we need to expend more calories than we take in.

Cardiovascular training can elicit positive benefits by increasing caloric expenditure, improving VO2max, increasing fat oxidation (depending on intensity and duration), and decreasing body mass (via increasing daily caloric expenditure), amongst other things. However, we must take into account that most gym endurance training equipment (e.g., treadmill, elliptical) and wearable calorie counters have shown inaccurate results in regard to estimating total caloric expenditure. Evidence has found that the total calories we actually expend through endurance training can be significantly lower than what is estimated by this type of equipment.[ref] Bunn, Jennifer A et al. “Current State of Commercial Wearable Technology in Physical Activity Monitoring 2015-2017.” International journal of exercise science vol. 11,7 503-515. 2 Jan. 2018.[/ref] [ref] Chowdhury EA, Western MJ, Nightingale TE, Peacock OJ, Thompson D (2017) Assessment of laboratory and daily energy expenditure estimates from consumer multi-sensor physical activity monitors. PLoS ONE 12(2): e0171720. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0171720[/ref] As such, we should be more particular about relying on just one method of measurement or trying to “run it off” (ever heard the saying you can’t out-train a bad diet?).

Pizza, Burgers, Fries And Soda
900 + calories in one sitting

This is where a balanced focus on nutrition comes into play. Take a slice of pizza for instance; a Domino’s pepperoni pizza provides approximately 370 calories/slice according to their nutrition chart found online. If you were to consume 2 slices of the pizza mentioned, pairing those slices with a high-calorie beverage like soda, two products commonly marketed together in America (i.e. the Dominoes and Coca-Cola partnership), you’d end up consuming ~900 total calories in one sitting. Some evidence suggests you can expend ~300 calories during a bout of low intensity endurance training lasting 30 minutes [ref] Hendrickson, Kirsten, John P. Porcari, and Carl Foster. “RELATIVE EXERCISE INTENSITY, HEART RATE, OXYGEN CONSUMPTION, AND CALORIC EXPENDITURE WHEN EXERCISING ON VARIOUS NON-IMPACT CARDIO TRAINERS.”[/ref]. Considering this, the total amount of time needed to “burn off” what you had just consumed would be somewhere around 1.5 hours—comparably more time costly than if you had just made a slight adjustment to your nutritional choices.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Over time your body adapts to changes in energy expenditure through exercise in a physiological manner. Amongst other adaptations, and for the sake of simplicity, there can be an improvement in what is known as “exercise economy”. Improved exercise economy denotes a lower energy cost for a given amount of work completed during exercise. Related to an increase in mitochondrial efficiency within a muscle cell, improved exercise economy in this context refers to performing similar bouts of endurance training (e.g. similar intensity, duration, and modality) and expending less calories at a given work rate. Mitochondria are the organelles in cells where a majority of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is synthesized (a molecule used for energy during a muscular contraction). Thus, improved mitochondrial efficiency refers to an increase in the amount of ATP generated per molecule of oxygen consumed by muscle mitochondria for the same task over repeated bouts. We tend to utilize less calories over time during the same repeated bout of training (e.g. jogging for 30 minutes) and the calories in a slice of pizza stays relatively the same. Considering this, it may be easier and more sustainable to just cut out the calories from those slices of pizza in the example previously mentioned.
  • Find balance. This may sound overplayed but balance deals with a majority of our lives. We are constantly trying to balance our schedules with healthy amounts of work, recreation, and relaxation. So, we should think of weight loss similarly. This can be achieved by expending more energy (through exercise) than you intake per day (through food consumption). As such, utilizing cardiovascular exercise as a tool for its positive adaptations (i.e. fat oxidation) along with slowly lowering your caloric intake for a given period (e.g. cutting cycle) may be more advantageous for consistent and sustained weight loss. Also, adding in some resistance training can help defend lean body mass.

We have multiple ways of manipulating variables during a cutting cycle in order to achieve a desired weight loss goal, but that doesn’t mean you have to use them all at once. Keep this in mind; if someone gave you a toolbox and said “I want you to build me a house with these tools (e.g., endurance training, diet, resistance training, caloric restriction, etc.) BUT, just remember, after each time you use a tool, it’s less effective.” Would you use all the tools on the first day? Or would you use each tool sparingly in order to make continual progress throughout the build?

To wrap this all up, consider each training strategy as potential tools that work in conjunction with each other to help you reach your desired goal; for example, a lean and muscular physique. Cardiovascular training is just one piece of the puzzle; once you get closer to the finished product, you’ll then have to add more pieces to make continued progress. Some of these pieces include caloric restriction, resistance training, and proper amounts of sleep. Based on what was discussed above, I’d start by simply implementing better nutritional choices before utilizing more tools from the “toolbox” (remember the analogy above).

Ways you can do this:

  • Focus on protein intake: what is probably the most important macronutrient for body composition and other physiological processes, increasing your protein intake to sufficient levels could help you feel more satisfied and will help assist with increases in muscle tissue growth.
  • Curb cravings with science: James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits”, mentions a conversation he had with Kent Berridge, a professor and researcher of psychology and neuroscience, in regard to the differences in brain activity between “liking” and “wanting” [“liking” refers to the chemical reaction in your brain once consuming a certain stimuli (e.g. sugar) while “wanting” refers to your craving to obtain a certain stimuli]. In the book mentioned, James refers to a study he discussed with Kent, who has done multiple studies in this specific area [ref] Castro, Daniel C, and Kent C Berridge. “Opioid hedonic hotspot in nucleus accumbens shell: mu, delta, and kappa maps for enhancement of sweetness “liking” and “wanting”.” The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience vol. 34,12 (2014): 4239-50. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4458-13.2014[/ref][ref] Berridge, Kent C et al. “Dissecting components of reward: ‘liking’, ‘wanting’, and learning.” Current opinion in pharmacology vol. 9,1 (2009): 65-73. doi:10.1016/j.coph.2008.12.014[/ref] [ref] Berridge, Kent C. “Wanting and Liking: Observations from the Neuroscience and Psychology Laboratory.” Inquiry (Oslo, Norway) vol. 52,4 (2009): 378. doi:10.1080/00201740903087359[/ref], which references the fact that “researchers have found that 100 percent of the nucleus accumbens is activated during wanting. Meanwhile, only 10 percent of the structure is activated during liking.” Nucleus accumbens is a part of the “reward system” of our brain that perceives a given stimulus as positive or desirable (ever eaten a whole box of Oreo’s and then immediately regret it? Am I the only one?). With that idea in mind, try this out; eat only 1 slice of pizza and have water to wash it down. Then go occupy yourself for a short period of time (e.g. 30 minutes) and reassess your hunger. Generally, you may find yourself not wanting that additional slice. I’ve personally implemented this strategy and it helps keep me from over-indulging on foods that don’t align with my physique goals.
  • Prepare your food ahead of time: by having food planned out and prepared, you can focus on your daily tasks at hand without having to dread cooking an entire meal; instead opting for the convenience of fast food.
  • Set reasonable goals: immediate satisfaction is one hell of a drug. In my experience it can cause someone to lose motivation and give up on unrealistic goals before any systems are put into place. In the same book mentioned, James Clear states “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Develop habits (i.e. systems) you can fall to in order to stay on track. 

Once all these points are mastered and you start noticing progress slow through proper monitoring (I, personally, use APLYFT software to monitor my clients each week), then you could begin to add cardiovascular exercise as a tool to continue making sustained progress throughout your weight loss journey.

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email

It's Time To Get Started

Apply to work with Jake and schedule  your one on one!

More To Explore

meal prep

How to Succeed at Dieting

“WHAT’S THE BEST DIET?” An honest question in the search for a greater understanding of the body. However, the answer to the question tends to

Get ready