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Is Cardio Really Necessary for Fat Loss? Here’s the Deal

If heart-pounding running or high-octane aerobics sessions just aren’t your thing, there are other ways you can lose body fat without cardio.

But even though you don’t necessarily need cardio for fat loss, it’s one of the best and fastest ways to burn calories.

Here are some tips for bare minimum cardio seekers and what noncardio workouts you can do instead to help you lose body fat.

Cardio is short for “cardiovascular activity.” Sometimes it’s also referred to as aerobic exercise. Cardio helps bump up your blood pumping and breathing rates, resulting in a great workout for your heart and large muscle groups (think torso and legs).

This type of exercise is good for fat loss because it helps you burn more calories, plain and simple. The exact number of calories you need to burn to lose a pound of fat depends on your metabolism, but generally, you need to burn about 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound of fat in a week.

Cardio’s cool for burning calories, but it’s not the *best* option for fat loss. That’s because while cardio burns calories while you move, strength training can actually help your body keep burning more calories through the day and night (more on that later).

Remember, fat loss happens when there’s a calorie deficit. But there’s more than one way to dial down your intake or turn up your calorie burn.

Other ways you can lose fat and skip the dreaded cardio:

Short answer: Yes, you can lose fat by lifting weights.

Weight training offers the one-two punch of burning calories while lifting *and* revving up your overall metabolism. According to a 2008 study (whoa, “Twilight” era 👀), lifting weights locks in lean muscle, which torches more calories throughout the day than, say, your jiggly bits.

Hitting up the weight rack can be a great way to lose fat, but it can also lead to a higher number on the scale. Don’t freak out. You’re not gettin’ “bulky” with this weight gain. Lean muscle is actually heavier than visceral fat, and it’s a healthy swap. Remember: those numbers on the scale never give you the full health picture anyway.

If your goal is to lose fat, it’s true that cardio will help you rev up your calorie-burning rate (aka your metabolism). But cardio doesn’t have to mean lacing up your running shoes and hitting the pavement. Here are your options.

Aim for full-body cardio

You’ll need to work your major muscle groups to burn the most calories in the shortest amount of time. All your standard cardio will do this. Just get your body moving.

Need an idea of calorie burn from different cardio workouts? The CDC offers these estimates for how many calories a 154-pound person could burn in 30 minutes:

Try HIIT

High intensity interval training (HIIT) requires short bursts of intense activity followed by brief rests. Research has linked HIIT to reduced belly fat and a fired-up metabolism (thanks, afterburn!).

HIIT is more about the intervals than a specific exercise. You can build a HIIT workout from any of these cardio classics:

Try a cardio machine

Research suggests that home-based cardio machines like NordicTrack systems can be just as effective as heading to the gym. Exactly *which* cardio machine will whittle your waistline depends on the same factors as body-weight exercises.

Opt for machines that:

Rowing machines, ellipticals, treadmills, and bikes are all contenders.

Experiment with fasted cardio

Research on fasted cardio is still inconclusive, but some studies suggest that exercising on an empty stomach *might* help your body readily burn stored fat.

A 2018 research review suggested the cardio on an empty stomach led to a post-workout metabolic boost. And a 2016 review found that fasted cardio unleashed a higher fat burn than cardio after eating.

Still, fasted cardio isn’t healthy or best for everyone. Start slow and stay hydrated if you give it a try.

This is a tricky question. Cardio burns more calories while you work out. Weight training changes your body composition so that you burn more calories all day.

One 2012 study of 119 adults tried to answer this very question. Participants with overweight or obese bodies were divided into 3 groups: cardio, strength training, or a combo of both. Researchers found that cardio kicked weight training’s butt when it came to fat loss. But those who did both experienced the same results as those who’d done just cardio.

Bottom line: Cardio is a faster short-term fat loss solution, but combining cardio with strength training will help you lose body fat while boosting your metabolism for the long term.

Research shows that combining cardio and strength training can improve your odds of long-term weight loss. Here are a few tips to optimize this killer combo:

  • Time it right. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) says scheduling your cardio immediately after weights will maximize calorie-burning potential.
  • Clock more cardio than strength training. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that 2.5 to 4 hours of cardio per week will help most folks shed fat if they’re also following recommended dietary restrictions. For strength training, 2 or 3 weekly 30-minute sessions are the norm.
  • HIIT up the gym. We know that HIIT is a great way to accelerate that sweet, sweet calorie burn. Many HIIT workouts incorporate both cardio and strength training. #Win

  • Cardio is not a requirement for fat loss, but it certainly helps.
  • Cardio burns more calories during your workout, while strength training helps you build muscle so that you’ll burn more calories 24/7.
  • The best fitness plan for lasting fat loss is a combination of cardio and weight training.
  • Your best bet for fat loss is a combo of cardio + strength training + a balanced, nutrient-rich diet.

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