How to burn fat effectively using cardio

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I have been running for years but I don’t seem to lose any weight. Why is this?

Low-intensity cardio training, such as jogging, is one of the most popular tactics for weight loss but it’s far from the best. Long-duration, steady-state cardio isn’t an efficient way to burn fat – if fat loss is your primary objective, you’d be better off doing other activities.

One of the reasons why running is often touted as a good exercise for weight loss is that it’s a good calorie burner, but when it comes to specifically targeting fat it can actually do more harm than good as you’ll find out below. That’s not to say steady-state running isn’t a worthwhile form of exercise, it’s just not the one to spend your time doing if getting rid of love handles is your primary goal.

While a lot of people lose fat through running, they are generally people who have a lot of weight to lose and have previously been totally sedentary. In the case of people like that, just moving is a positive thing to do. Also, while the standard image of long-distance runners is wiry and thin, if you look around any marathon there’s always a fair few porkers about – some of whom might even pass you!

Why isn’t this form of cardio best for fat loss?

Slow cardio training can lead to an increase in your levels of the stress hormone cortisol because of the stress it puts on your system. Cortisol encourages the storage of abdominal body fat – in other words belly fat, the very fat most men want to lose – and also lowers testosterone, which is vital for building muscle and burning fat.

Training like this is often also accompanied by the desire to eat a lot of carbs and not enough protein, which will also lead to fat storage. How many times have you finished a long run and then stuffed your face by way of reward? Even if you don’t eat any more calories than you burned, you’ll still be in a worse off position because of the extra cortisol flooding your body.

Having said that, cortisol production is only really ramped up past the 45-minute mark of constant running. So if you enjoy steady-state running but want to lose your belly blubber, just ensure your runs don’t exceed three-quarters of an hour. And if your girlfriend is running to try and lose weight, be a gent and let her know the fat-storing effect of steady-state cardio is even more pronounced for women.

What type of training should I do then? 

Lift weights and do high-intensity cardio training. Lifting weights helps to promote the release of growth hormones that burn fat and you’ll also add more muscle, which has the effect of making your body burn more calories, even at rest. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is also great because it has the same effect on your body as weight training and doesn’t stress your body too much.

What is HIIT?

Short, intense bursts of sprinting, cycling or any other type of traditional cardio. Typically it’s a short period of all-out effort followed by a slower period to recover, then repeating this pattern. Like weightlifting, it creates an oxygen debt that your body must balance afterwards, which has the effect of burning far more calories and releasing more growth hormone.

Most of us have less free time than we would like, and one of the best things about HIIT-style training is that you can get incredible results quickly. For example, a 20-minute sprint interval session will burn roughly the same amount of calories as and more fat than a 40-minute plod round the park, with the added bonus of not increasing cortisol production. It doesn’t end there either – some studies have found the body continues to burn fat for up to 12 hours after a HIIT session. 

Find out more about HIIT training

How do I create a HIIT plan?

Due to the nature of this training and level of intensity, you shouldn’t do it every day. Done daily, it will quickly cause excess fatigue on your nervous system, at which point it stops being effective. Instead, do two or three workouts a week in which, after a thorough warm-up, you alternate between 20-30 seconds of all-out effort and 45-60 seconds of recovery. Repeat this eight to 12 times and finish with a warm-down.

The exercise you do can be sprinting, cycling, swimming, rowing, punching – whatever your favourite activity is. As you get fitter, increase the length of the work period and reduce the recovery period. There are even a load of apps that can help you do HIIT, from simple timers to whole training plans with suggested moves and integrated timekeeping. A HIIT session can be done in the park, gym, a hotel room – anywhere at all.

Try a HIIT workout

Should I still do longer, slower cardio sessions? 

If you love getting outdoors and going for a long run or ride, then you should definitely still do so occasionally because the benefits to your sense of health, wellbeing and mood are undeniable and shouldn’t be ignored. However, keep it under 45 minutes, treat it as a recovery session and don’t expect it to make a positive difference to your physique if fat loss is your primary objective. 

Feeling the burn – Why HIIT torches fat

1. Create a debt

Intensive exercise creates an oxygen debt as your muscles use oxygen at a quicker rate than you can take it in.

2. Pay it off

This deficit must be replaced once training has ceased, to return your body to a balanced state.

3. Reap the reward

As your body ‘pays off’ the debt, it increases the rate at which calories are burned, so fat stores are chipped away at during this period of metabolic increase.

WHAT ELSE? Keep it quick

Are your cardio sessions more dawdle than dash? Save time and get leaner simply by speeding things up. A study published in the International Journal Of Sport Nutrition And Exercise Metabolism assigned two groups of men to do either 30 minutes of steady jogging or two minutes of intensive sprint interval training, three times a week for six weeks. Researchers found that the interval sprint training boosted the participants’ metabolism the same amount as those who jogged, even though the joggers exercised for 28 minutes more than the sprinters each session. So hit the track and use that extra 84 minutes a week productively. Sleeping, maybe.