First, let’s define what “cardio” is. “Cardio” is abbreviated for “cardiovascular exercise” and is any physical activity that primarily operates aerobically – using free available oxygen. You might think of the row machine, running, cycling or hiking as common aerobic exercises.
Cardio + Weights Is Best
Cardio, as opposed to lifting weights, is commonly understood as a method of exercise that improves function in the cardiovascular system (e.g. heart and blood vessels) and helps support weight loss , but less understood is the fact that resistance training (e.g. lifting weights) also has profound effects on cardiovascular function and weight loss [1,2]. In fact, you don’t *need* to do any cardio to lose weight – you just need to eat less calories than you expend. This is the basis of how the concept of “energy balance” works.
However, while the fact that you don’t need to do cardio to lose weight remains true in theory, in practice it often doesn’t work too well – at least over the long-term for most folks. Supporting weight loss by increasing caloric expenditure via lifting weights *and* cardio is often recommended as these aerobic-based activities carry other powerful health benefits and support long-term adherence . It’s also important to understand that during exercise your body is never using only one energy system (e.g. aerobic vs anaerobic) – there is always overlap.
150 Minutes per Week of Moderate-Intensity Exercise Is Recommended
So, resistance training along with some form of cardiovascular exercise is recommended for weight loss as well as a long list of other general health benefits, so does that mean you need to run or do elliptical after your lifting sessions? It depends – do you enjoy running or doing the elliptical? Or do you prefer cycling? Or maybe walking? When it comes to prescribing cardio for my clients, I take into consideration 3 main things: the client’s current physical capacities, their current preferences, their current goals, and the current recommended guidelines as described by the American Heart Association (AHA). The AHA recommends a minimum of “150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week” .
So, while you certainly don’t need to do “cardio” to lose weight, it’s recommended as an effective method to support weight loss via increased caloric output as well as confer a laundry list of established health benefits via decreased risk of major health diseases and conditions (e.g. high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, abnormal cholesterol, insulin resistance, being overweight) . And you can do this by choosing activities you enjoy (or at the very least don’t hate) that meet or exceed the AHA’s recommended guidelines.
Walking Regularly is a Great Option To Keep Moving, Aiming to Gradually Increase Your Steps Over Time
The AHA also suggests you “if you’re sedentary, sitting less is a great place to start. Even light-intensity activity can offset some of the risks of being sedentary.” Personally, I don’t enjoy running but I do like walking, hiking and cycling. Making regular walks a daily habit helps me meet the AHA’s recommendations for moderate-intensity activity as well as helps to increase my caloric output and supports my maintenance of a healthy body weight. A specific step count recommendation is challenging to make as there is much more context to be considered, but based on the data of several studies looking at step count and all-cause mortality it appears that anywhere between 4,000 – 10,000 per day is a reasonable window for most folks to work towards [5,6,7].
If you find these recommendations to be overwhelming, I would consider focusing less on the numbers and focus more on gradually increasing from where you are starting from – that’s the most important thing.
Tim Walcott, Owner and Founder of Motus Strength Health Club – a fitness facility servicing the general population that offers Registered Massage Therapy, Private 1-on-1 Personal Training, Online Personal Training, and Nutrition Coaching.
- Aerobic or Resistance Exercise, or Both, in Dieting Obese Older Adults. N Engl J Med. 2017 May 18; 376(20): 1943–1955.
- Strength Training and All‐Cause, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer Mortality in Older Women: A Cohort Study. J Am Heart Assoc. 2017 Nov; 6(11): e007677.
- American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids.
- Cardiorespiratory Fitness as a Quantitative Predictor of All-Cause Mortality and Cardiovascular Events in Healthy Men and Women: A Meta-analysis. JAMA. 2009;301(19):2024-2035.
- Association of Step Volume and Intensity With All-Cause Mortality in Older Women. JAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(8):1105-1112.
- Daily Step Count and All-Cause Mortality in a Sample of Japanese Elderly People: A Cohort Study. BMC Public Healthvolume 18, Article number: 540 (2018).
- How Many Steps/Day Are Enough? For Children and Adolescents. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activityvolume 8, Article number: 78 (2011).