Cardio & Fat Loss - Part One

So you've decided you want to lose weight and look better in the Jack Johnson. You've noticed you've got these soft flabby bits that you're not so keen on and it's time to start exercising to get rid of them. And the best way of getting rid of that unwanted fat is some form of Cardio, right?

Nope. There is something much more important to address for Fat Loss than Cardio.

Disclaimer: I'm only discussing cardio as it pertains to weight loss here

For most of the population it's the go to choice for weight loss. Whether that's jogging, cycling, swimming or vigorous garden boules, most people begin by trying to opt for the thing that burns the most calories right here, right now. 

Running for example burns more calories per minute than almost any other activity. So that must make it the best for fat loss right?


There is a more pertinent question when finding out how to lose weight, and it's a pretty straightforward one, but one that most never ask.

How Many Calories Do You Need To Burn? 

In other words how many calories you consume vs how many calories you expend. And just burning ever more calories is not a useful or practical idea, after all your body has needs beyond simply moving around. The average 3 pound brain burns over 300 calories a day just so you can have thoughts about which filter to use on Instagram or how many Jaffa Cakes you could fit in your mouth. Though that could just be me. Keeping your body healthy and functioning requires energy i.e. food. So eating no food at all is a pretty dumb idea. If you want to know how many calories you need go here.

So We Have This Dilemma:

The need to be in a calorie deficit (expending more energy than consumed) in order to lose weight but not so much of a deficit that I cease to be a coherent human being. (Note - there are plenty of choices in between those two extremes).

The tried and tested method of taking 500 calories away from your maintenance (the amount required to stay the same weight) calories is a pretty solid starting point. A pound of fat contains roughly 3500 calories of energy so a 500 calorie a day deficit is a pound of fat a week. It's rarely that simple and linear but it's a good starting point.

Note that we see pretty big variations in response to dieting. Some people lose lots, some lose a bit and some don't lose at all. We call these high and low responders, and sadly you don't get to pick which one you are. This is true of everything in life however so you've just got to play the hand you've been dealt. For example I will never be seen winning a best calves contest.

The most likely explanation for those people not losing weight is simply that they either underreport their intake or overestimate their expenditure.

The other likely suspect in some people's inability to lose weight may be to do with something called NEAT. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Sounds fancy but it isn't. It's all of the fidgeting and movements you do day to day that aren't specifically exercise. All these things that you don't really think about day to day can add up to quite a large caloric difference. As an exercise watch your lean friends and see how fidgety they are compared with friends who struggle with their weight. 

This overfeeding study found a huge variation when overfeeding subjects by 1000 calories above maintenance. Variation to the tune of 1100 calories in individual response. One guy, when overfed 1000 calories sped up his metabolism (most likely through NEAT) by 700 calories, meaning he only overfed by 300 calories. While a girl in the same study actually slowed her metabolism down by 100 calories, meaning she was overeating by 1100 calories. Same setup with conditions to control for outside variables and still a huge difference from person to person. 

Alan Aragon UK Conference 2014

Alan Aragon UK Conference 2014

So when we say calories in vs calories out, it isn't quite as simple as it may sound at face value. The following was presented at the Alan Aragon UK Conference in 2014 to sum it up:

At the top is the total amount that actually goes in through the mouth. It is then divided up into what we can break down and what we can't. So those insoluble fibres can pass right on through without being overly useful from an energy standpoint. We then have the amount of energy required to break down, absorb and assimilate the various things you've eaten. Proteins, for example, have a much higher TEF (Thermic Effect of Feeding - see below) than fats; between 20-30% of the energy contained is used digesting proteins compared to only around 3% for fats. I also have to move the food along the digestive tract through peristalsis (contraction of the intestines) until it comes out the other side. Enjoy that thought.

TEF - Thermic Effect of Feeding - is the amount of energy expenditure used above resting rate to process food for use and/or storage

What we have left over is available for moving, thinking, throwing shapes and all the other things that make us human. And that includes NEAT, which we know can be wildly different person to person. 

All of this doesn't mean calories don't count. They are basically the only thing that counts when it comes to weight loss. But it does mean that the equation is more complex than it may originally seem.

Which brings me back to Cardio. Finally. I have to burn calories to be in a deficit in order to lose weight. But I'm always burning calories. So Cardio is really just a tool that helps me burn some more. So how many do you need to burn? Start by figuring out your caloric requirements, using this article on How Many Calories You Need:

No method of calculation is 100% precise and there will be differences person to person as I hope you can start to see, but the more info we can start with the better.

If you read the previous article on Calories you will know how to adjust your calories for your goals but if not, once you have calculated your number. Either take away 500 calories or 20% of the total. That is going to be your base starting rate for weight loss. As noted some will lose weight a little quicker, some a little slower and that's ok. It's likely due to underreporting intake, overestimating expenditure or variation in individual NEAT. 

But once we have been consistent with our intake for a couple of weeks, we will then be able to see changes in weight and/or body composition. And this information can help us make decisions about whether you are on the right amount of calories.

And this is where cardio comes in

Let's say you've been losing weight at a rate of 0.5-1% per week using the calories provided above. But after a little while you've plateaued and are no longer losing weight. You don't want to eat less because food is awesome. Now we add in cardio, using it as a controlled tool to help create a sustainable calorie deficit. But in order for it to work effectively for Fat Loss we must first know all of the previous information. If we don't we are guessing and we can do much better than that.

In the next article (found here) I will address the different styles of cardio along with how and when to incorporate them into your workouts.

But remember, this will only be useful if you your calories in place first so figure your numbers out and let's do this thing.

Paul StandellComment