When most people commit to weight loss they rush to the gym and start grinding out hours of cardio. Find out just how much of a role cardio plays in the fat loss process.

I am going to ask you a question, and without thinking I want you to blurt out the first answer that comes to mind. Ready? Here's the question:

How much cardio do you need for fat loss?

Many of you probably said a lot! A good portion of you were probably a bit more specific, and said something like: 25-30 minutes, 3-5 cardio sessions per week.

Which answer is correct? Neither of them. You don't "need" cardio for fat loss. Let's get into why.

What is Cardio?

Cardio, as viewed by those of us trying to lose weight, is a light to moderate form of exercise that can be performed for an extended period of time without stopping. The goal of cardio is simple: keep moving so you burn as many calories as possible.

Cardio is also generally performed to improve our cardiovascular health. But since this article is addressing a specific question (how much cardio is NEEDED for fat loss), I will stick to that topic. Whether cardio does, or doesn't improve health is beside the point.

There are 2 major forms of cardiovascular exercise:

  • HIIT - High Intensity Interval Training. Involves alternating before short periods of very intense movement, such as 15 seconds of sprinting, and longer periods of low intense cardio such as walking.
  • LIT - Low Intensity Training (also called Steady State). This is the typical form of cardio performed by gym rats and cardio bunnies. It involves long, boring sessions on a treadmill or Stairmaster.

HIIT is generally considered a more efficient form of cardio, meaning you can burn more calories in a shorter period of time. HIIT is also more engaging, or fun. Despite these benefits, HIIT cardio is also more difficult. It is more explosive, harder on the joints, and certainly not as easy for heavier or older folks.

With this in mind, we will look at low intensity cardio, and how many calories it can burn per session.

Cardio Fat LossCalories Burned During LIT - Low Intensity Cardio

Based on a 220 pound individual performing 30 minutes of cardio.

  • Hiking - 325 calories
  • Stairmaster - 325 calories
  • Swimming - 325 calories
  • Walking - 151 calories

Let's say you are determined to perform 4 treadmill sessions per week at 30 minutes per session. This equates to about 600 calories burned per week.

Over the course of a year's time, you till have burned off a total of 30,000 calories (allowing for a few missed workouts). How much fat did this burn off? What was the reward for your hard work?

You lost 8.5 pounds of fat. You lost 8.5 pounds of fat as a result of your 100 hours of treadmill time.

What is the point in walking you through these numbers? To show you that cardio, while good for overall health, is generally not an efficient method of burning fat.

If your goal is to lose 40-75 pounds of fat, you can live on a treadmill and still barely put a dent into those numbers. This brings us to the point of this article: you don't "need" cardio to lose fat, you need to nail down your diet.

Diet and Fat Loss

A good eating plan will melt fat off your body. The only requirement - precision, monitoring your calorie intake, and making adjustments when needed.

Remember the question we asked at the beginning of this article? Most people, when they find the motivation to lose weight, think  of cardio first. They hit the gym and immediately start grinding out hours upon hours on the treadmill.

Diet is what they should be thinking about. 

Cardio without a wise eating plan is a disaster waiting to happen. If your eating goes unmonitored, cardio is likely to increase your appetite and maybe even cause you to not lose any fat at all.

Remember the old saying....working up an appetite? It's very appropriate here. If you have no idea how many calories you are taking in each day, it's very easy to slip in an extra 200-400.

By setting up a quality eating plan you can easily reach your fat loss goals in a year. More than this, you are assured of reaching your goals. Guaranteed! (If you follow the plan, that is) You can't get this guarantee from cardio, unless you live in the gym for 8 hours per day.

An eating plan can be structured to fit your needs. It can be set up to help you lose anywhere from 5 to 25 pounds of fat per month. Even if you're hammering out the miles on a treadmill, your eating plan is still doing anywhere from 80 to 95% of the fat loss work.

This is why you don't "need" to do any cardio each week to lose fat. While cardio is great for overall health, it will never be as powerful as a quality eating plan.

Setting Up An Eating Plan

So now that we've talked about setting up a "quality" eating plan, let's look at how to do so.

The first thing you need to do is estimate a daily amount of calories that allows you to maintain your weight. I recommend checking out the article: How To Determine Your Daily Calorie And Macronutrient Intake Levels. Equipped with this number, it's time to proceed and dial in your daily calories so they are in line with your weight loss goals.

It should be known that most body composition experts recommend you lose weight no faster than 1.5 to 2 pounds per week. This rate helps you to maximize muscle retention while losing fat. Simply stated, it helps you to lose mostly fat while holding on to as much muscle mass as possible.

Fat Loss

First 2 Weeks

Subtract 300 calories from your daily maintenance level and eat this amount for 2 straight weeks. This will help you establish a baseline, or what exactly the scale is doing in response to this amount of food.

You will want to weight yourself first thing in the morning (after urination) each day during this 2 week period. Write down these numbers so you have concrete data to work with.

Weight loss during the first week is typically rapid. Ignore the weight lost during these 7 days, as most of it is water. When you begin a diet you are typically eating fewer daily carbs and less sodium. Because of this your body will flush  some excess water it has been carrying around in cells and in your blood stream.

The second week is the important week. If you lost more than 2 pounds per week during this period, pull back your calories by 200-300 per day and monitor your weight loss over the course of another 2 week period. If you did not lose any weight at all, drop your calories by 200-300 per day and monitor over the course of the coming 2 weeks. If you gained weight, drop your calorie intake by 500 per day and monitor your weight during the coming 2 weeks.

Aggressive Weight Loss

If you are after more aggressive weight loss, due to severe obesity or other health related issues, then you may want to pull back your calories so that you are losing 3 to 5 pounds per week.

Some fitness professionals will warn you against rapid weight loss plans, while others see then as the best route health-wise to go. It is beyond the bounds of this article to explore the pros and cons of slightly more aggressive weight loss plans.

Do your own research and talk to your doctor. Understand the pros and cons that come with both a conservative and aggressive weight loss protocol.

Avoid starvation diets. While losing weight a little more rapidly than normal is generally ok, you still want to monitor the scale and your calorie intake so that you are not guessing. Dial in your calories until you reach a consistent and comfortable rate of weight loss.

How to use Cardio and Diet To Lose Fat

CardioHow that we have your eating plan set up, let's consider cardio.

An eating plan set up to maximize body composition - retaining muscle mass while losing fat - will result in a loss of about 75 to 100 pounds of fat per year. A more aggressive eating plan could potentially result in a weight loss of 150 pounds or more per year.

While the weight loss resulting from cardio is minimal compared to these numbers, and while cardio is not necessarily needed to lose fat, it can play a beneficial role in the fat loss process when you reach plateaus and sticking points. Here is how I recommend using cardio during the fat loss process.

First, Use Cardio For Health

When you first begin the fat loss process, don't obsess over cardio. Think of it as something that can improve your overall health, but not as a requirement to lose fat.

Don't rush into the gym and live on the Stairmaster or treadmill. This is a great way to zap your motivation.

Instead, spend the first 4 to 6 weeks of your weight loss program dialing in your diet. You can slowly add in cardio during this time - for health. Don't overdo it. Allow your body to acclimate to the demands of this additional form of exercise.

Here is a 6 week treadmill plan that eases you into a solid amount of (health beneficial) cardio.

  • Week 1 - 2 sessions per week, 10-15 minutes per session.
  • Week 2 - 2-3 sessions per week, 15-20 minutes per session.
  • Week 3 - 3 sessions per week, 15-20 minutes per session.
  • Week 4 - 3 sessions per week, 20-25 minutes per session.
  • Week 5 - 3-4 sessions per week, 20-25 minutes per session.
  • Week 6 - 3-4 sessions per week, 20-30 minutes per session.

This should be all the cardio you ever need. With that said, weight loss plateaus can happen, especially during extended cutting periods.

When a stall does occur, instead of lowering your calories any further, try making a small adjustment to your weekly cardio. Add 10 minutes of treadmill time per week, and see if this little bump helps. If not add another small bump. If this does not help, then you may need to drop your calories by another 200 per day.

Do not panic and rush to drop your calories or increase cardio. Sometimes we just have a bad week. If you hit a 2 week skid without weight loss, then it may be time to make these minor changes.

Final Thoughts on Cardio

Cardio. Great for health, not needed for fat loss.

I know many of you will think this is hyperbole, but I know quite a few bodybuilders and athletes who don't use cardio while trying to lose fat/weight. You can include me in this list.

I've been involved with fitness and lifting for nearly 30 years. During this time I've been a runner, powerlifter and have lifted to pure muscle size.

I prefer to do the minimum amount of cardio necessary when shedding the fat. The main reason is that cardio tends to spike my hunger. I prefer to minimize the drive to eat in any way possible.

Bottom line...if you want to lose weight, don't rush out and live on the treadmill. Relax, take some time to set up an intelligent eating plan, and slowly ease into cardio.

The fat loss will come.

Posted on: Wed, 04/12/2017 - 09:18

Would any cardio work be suitable for doing this 6 week plan, or is it only for the treadmil?

I'm starting a fat loss plan, and wanting to do weight lifting (to lose weight and tone up) and cardio work (to improve overall health) but due to a knee injury from a few years back don't want to do 'just' treadmill work.

Any help or input greatly appreciated!

Posted on: Wed, 04/12/2017 - 10:39

Your nutrition and strength training will drive your physique goals while cardio plays a minimal role in comparison (also, strength training is cardio). If you have extra time then focus on low impact activities such as walking, swimming, cycling, etc.

Posted on: Fri, 10/10/2014 - 19:47

Not sure I agree with this article, yes you need to cut the calories to lose weight, but I think adding cardio , like walking for a hour a few times a week will help weight loss. Whenever you see all this athletic looking people, they didn't get like that sitting around and just eating less, cardio is very important to building a lean healthy body. But strength training , lifting weights, doing compound exercises. is important to make sure you don't burn muscle as well as fat as your body does not care what it burns if you are not doing any strength training or heavy lifting. Lifting weights will trigger your body to only burn fat.

A very fit person once said just sweat for 10 minutes a day, if that's all you can do, just do enough cardio to sweat 10 minutes a day. But without the right eating habits, you are not going to lose weight. I lost over a stone in about 6 months just cutting out all junk and walking more, and making sure I eat very little in the evening before bed, 2 eggs for breakfast, and anything for dinner as long as it wasn't a massive meal. I also do weights a few times a week, only one set, but I lift heavy, full body workout. 12-15 reps each exercise. Increase the weight when you are not challenged enough with the current weight you are lifting.

It works for me. Everyone is different and should make their own custom plan that works for them, as Jean Cluad Van Damme said, listen to your body, there is no miracle cure to this, at the end of the day it comes down to doing the work, once you cut through all the millions of articles out there on the subject of health, fitness, it all comes down to doing the work. Do it and stop worrying.

Posted on: Sun, 01/26/2014 - 19:48

Hey Steve another great article I came across. I'm writing to ask you about my plans I'm currently on. I follow a very clean eating I live about 90% of the time eating lean protein, veggies, and fruit. I've been hitting the elliptical for about 30-35 minutes a day. my question is I would like to add in some weight training asking with this. Any recommendations on weight training for a beginner who is a bit shy when it comes to weights? I'm 6 5 280 pounds and I consume between 1400-1800 calories a day. Any help is appreciated. Thanks

Posted on: Sun, 08/25/2013 - 01:08

Steve thanks for validating my thoughts on this subject. I want to build muscle. I am six ft. 2" 224 lbs. I am 23 percent body fat. I started working out again after a two year halt. I started about a little over a month ago. I changed my diet, I drink a lot of water. I keep my calorie intake in check. I went from 240 lbs. to 224 lbs. And my body fat percentage went from 28 percent to 23 percent. I have not done any cardio. I was afraid it would cannibalize my muscles. I feel full of energy and love it.

Posted on: Sun, 08/25/2013 - 01:02

Steve thanks for validating my thoughts on this subject. I want to build muscle. I am six ft. 2" 224 lbs. I am 23 percent body fat. I started working out again after a two year halt. I started about a little over a month ago. I changed my diet, I drink a lot of water. I keep my calorie intake in check. I went from 240 lbs. to 224 lbs. And my body fat percentage went from 28 percent to 23 percent. I have not done any cardio. I was afraid it would cannibalize my muscles. I feel full of energy and love it.

Posted on: Fri, 08/23/2013 - 06:13

Cardio does help fat loss greatly with dieting. It lowers your resting heart rate, improves cardiovascular endurance, burns calories and keeps you conditioned. I do it everyday.

Posted on: Tue, 07/09/2013 - 22:43

you missed a lot in this article. energy and fuel sources for cardio vs resistance and EPOC.

Ted Sprague
Posted on: Mon, 07/01/2013 - 06:00

I do lifting only.
If I need cardio, I simply lift faster...

Posted on: Sun, 10/27/2013 - 22:10

Have you lost weight by just diet and weight lifting or know of anyone who has? I dislike cardio and love strength training. I've see a change in my body with strength training as far as toning and muscle but have yet to lose weight.

Posted on: Wed, 06/26/2013 - 19:57

I love doing cardio because it improves my overall Cardiorespiratory Endrance and also burns fat. I'm not going to stop, i understand your article though and agree with everything.

Posted on: Wed, 06/26/2013 - 15:02

Great article. But I think when trying to lose fat, I would assume to encourage the dieters to engage in a strengthening program, such as lifting weights. Weight lifting along with Dieting will give them a good toned look and feeling, instead of a skinny fat.

Posted on: Tue, 06/25/2013 - 11:24

Excellent article, thanks Steve for posting it. Reminds me of a Q&A I read from Charles Poliquin:

Q: My main goal is fat loss. Due to my schedule, I have to lift and do cardio in the same workout. Is it best to do cardio first, or weights first?

A: Weights. Always. It's related to the rule of motor-unit recruitment. Always start with what's hardest to recruit, then finish off with what's easiest. Now, do you want my totally honest answer? F*** the treadmill. Lift for an hour, then go home and work on your diet for fat loss.

Along these lines, another excellent article is "The Hierarchy of Fat Loss" by by Alwyn Cosgrove. Essentially it ranks the factors that contribute to fat loss by impact and time available in your schedule:

1. Diet
2. Diet
3. Weight lifting
4. Cardio - HIIT
5. Cardio - LISS

Basically if you're not hitting the top 3 then don't bother with 4 and 5.

Cutty Strength
Posted on: Mon, 06/24/2013 - 19:55

Cardio with the sole purpose to lose weight is not very effective. Like the article states, you have to eat less. I use cardio for active recovery more than a tool to lose weight. I do like to do conditioning and GPP work as well.

Kareem Cox
Posted on: Mon, 06/24/2013 - 18:05

I've heard that after doing LIT you continue to burn calories for some time after you've stopped. Is this true? Factoring that, do you still burn more calories doing HIIT?

Posted on: Mon, 06/24/2013 - 17:54

Great article like always. Diet is the most important part with any exercise routine. A lot of people don't understand.

Posted on: Mon, 06/24/2013 - 17:40

Scrap that, using the treadmill instead of the stairmaster brings it down...

Posted on: Mon, 06/24/2013 - 17:39

@325 kcal per 30 min session, 4x per week are we not talking about 1300 kcal per week? Eventually leading to 67600 kcal or close to 20lbs over the course of a year?