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Doing Cardio to Lose Weight: How Much Do You Actually Need?

Find out how much cardio you need to lose weight.

It’s probably the first question on your mind when your goal is weight loss. Should I do more cardio to lose weight? Then, closely followed by these two: How frequently should I do cardio? And what type of cardio?

Truth be told, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to those questions. 

Many factors – including your fitness background, available time, and fitness goals – come into play when deciding how much cardio you should do per week. Now, I can hear you asking … 

“What is the point of this article, then?”

Oof. Great question. The amount of cardio you need to lose weight will look very different from what your mom, best friend, or that IG fitness influencer has to do, yes. 

But there still is a step-by-step process you can follow to determine what works best for you. And that’s what this article is going to show you. So, let’s get started!

What is cardio?

Chances are, you already know what cardio is. 

Or, rather, you’re all-too-familiar with how cardio feels. Sweat dripping off your forehead on the treadmill/Stairmaster, lactic acid turning your legs into lead, and all the panting that makes you sound like you’re deep into an Ironman race.

Yeah? Well, here’s the boring definition, regardless. 

Cardiovascular exercise (aka aerobic exercise) refers to any physical activity that elevates your heart rate and gets your blood pumping faster while using large muscle groups repetitively and rhythmically (1, 2). 

Typical forms of cardio include brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, and hiking. 

The above are commonly framed as your steady-state cardio (LISS). Cardio also comes in other forms, of course – including high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and every minute on the minute (EMOM). Before diving into that, let’s get into the meat of the article. 

Summary

Cardiovascular exercise refers to any physical activity that raises your heart rate and keeps it there for a prolonged period. There are many different forms of cardio (e.g. steady-state, high-intensity).

Losing weight comes down to calorie balance 

Using cardio to lose weight involves burning more calories to create a calorie deficit.

When it comes to losing weight, there’s a fundamental concept you have to remember. 

And that is: without a calorie deficit, losing weight is impossible. 

In other words, if you want the numbers on the scale to decrease, you’ve got to eat fewer calories than your body is burning (3, 4, 5, 6).

Not sure how many calories your body is burning? Or what calories even are? Not to worry, I’ve written a comprehensive guide to calories. Be sure to check it out, so you can learn how to create a suitable calorie deficit for yourself. 

In the meantime, here’s a rough estimation you can use. To lose 0.45 kg (1 lb) per week, you’ll theoretically need to create a 3,500-calorie deficit (7, 8, 9, 10). 

Meaning that you’ll have to find ways to consume fewer calories while increasing the calories you burn.  

That’s where using cardio to lose weight comes into play – it helps you burn off more calories.

Summary

You need to create a calorie deficit to lose weight. A 3,500-calorie deficit (a rough figure) is required to lose 0.45 kg (1lb) per week. Because cardio helps burn calories, you can use it as a weight-loss tool to create the calorie deficit you need. 

How much cardio per week should I do?

To make calculations a little easier, I’m going to assume that you aren’t making any changes to your diet. So – you’re going to create that 3,500-calorie deficit just from increasing your cardio activity. This doesn’t have to be the case in real life, of course.

Making a few easy changes to your diet (to cut down on your calorie intake) is going to significantly reduce the amount of time you have to spend on cardio to lose weight.  

Regardless, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just run with the 3,500-calorie deficit per week. 

As you’ll see in a little while, this will help you determine how you can use cardio to lose weight. 

Minimum baseline

Do note that there is a minimum baseline to the amount of cardio you need to do (at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week) because of all the health benefits it brings, including (11, 12, 13):

  • Promotes cardiovascular health: Cardio and cardiovascular health; that’s not a coincidence. Regular cardiovascular exercise boosts heart health. It does so by lowering your blood pressure and keeping your arteries clear (14, 15, 16, 17).
  • Regulates blood sugar levels: Sustained physical activity helps regulate your insulin levels. This, in turn, helps lower your blood sugar levels (18, 19). 
  • Manages chronic pain: Suffering from chronic back or knee pain? Cardiovascular exercise (especially low-impact ones) can help you regain muscle function and endurance (20). The weight you lose can also relieve some of the pressure on your back and knees. 
  • Improves sleep: If you’re always tossing and turning in bed at night, some cardio in the day will do you wonders. You can look forward to better sleep quality and duration (21, 22, 23). Not to mention: improvements in your daytime wakefulness and productivity!
  • Strengthens immune system: Regular cardio exercise can increase specific antibodies, called immunoglobulins, in your blood. This, in turn, helps strengthen your immune system (24, 25).

That’s not all of the benefits, of course! But hopefully, you have a good sense of just how crucial regular cardio is. 

Different activities burn a varying number of calories

The choice of cardio to lose weight decides the amount of calories you can burn.

As you can imagine, the number of calories burned for 30 minutes of brisk walking compared to 30 minutes of jogging will differ quite a bit. 

So, knowing the number of calories a specific activity burns is going to help you in determining just how much cardio you need to do per week. Also, note that certain factors can affect how quickly you burn calories. That includes age, body composition, and weight. 

Here’s a quick guide to how many calories your ‘traditional’ forms of cardio burn in 30 minutes for a 70kg woman (26):

  • Dancing: 165 calories
  • Walking (3.5 mph): 140 calories
  • Running (5 mph): 295 calories
  • Bicycling (>10 mph): 295 calories
  • Swimming: 255 calories

How to calculate how much cardio you need per week 

So … determining how much cardio you need to do per week should now be easy. Assuming that you need a 3,500-calorie deficit weekly, here’s how you can plan your cardio:

  • 6 hours of running per week 
  • 7 hours of swimming per week

Of course, this amount of cardio is going to be unsustainable for you. Especially if you have a tight schedule. That’s why, as mentioned earlier, the best way to create a calorie deficit is usually through a combination of:

  1. Increasing your calorie output (i.e. physical activity) AND
  2. Decreasing your calorie consumption

Say you eat 300 fewer calories every day. For reference: a regular-sized Snickers bar contains 280 calories. That totals to 2,100 calories. Now, you only need to create an additional 1,400 calorie deficit. Meaning you only need to do:

  • 2 hours and 20 minutes of running per week 
  • 2 hours and 40 minutes of swimming per week

So, as you can tell, creating a calorie deficit doesn’t have to entail hours upon hours spent on the treadmill machine. Nor do you have to starve yourself. Find a balance between the two, and you’ll find creating a calorie deficit a breeze.

Summary

To calculate how much cardio you need to do per week:

  • Determine the amount of calorie deficit you need. For example:
    • 3,500-calorie deficit to lose 0.45 kg (1 lb) per week 
  • Make the necessary adjustments to your calorie intake. For example:
    • Cut down on 300 calories a day
  • Calculate how many additional calories you need to burn through cardio. Using the above figures:
    • 3,500 – (300 x 7) = 1,400 calories
  • Plan your cardio activities accordingly to burn required additional calories. For example:
    • 2 hours and 20 minutes of running per week 
    • 2 hours and 40 minutes of swimming per week

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Cardio to lose weight: Which is the best?

Types of cardio

While there are indeed a few variations of cardio, they generally fall into 2 types:

  • Steady-state cardio: Exactly as it sounds like. This cardio method gets your heart rate up to an aerobic level (i.e. 60% to 85% of your max heart rate) and keeps it there for at least 30 minutes. Examples include:
    • Brisk walking
    • Jogging
    • Swimming 
  • Metabolic conditioning (METCON): METCON might be a new term for you. But more likely than not, you’ve already done it before. METCON is typically defined as ‘the ability to work at a level very close to 100% intensity for at least 20 minutes’ (27). That means METCON is the all-encompassing term for:
    • High-intensity interval training (e.g. Tabata, bike sprints, EMOM)
    • Circuit training 
    • Single modality activities (e.g. rowing, swimming, biking)
    • Or any combination of the above 

Summary

There are two types of cardio – steady-state cardio (LISS) and metabolic conditioning (METCON):

  • LISS gets your heart rate up to an aerobic level (i.e. 60% to 85% of your max heart rate) and keeps it there for at least 30 minutes.
  • METCON, on the other hand, is where you work at a level very close to 100% intensity for at least 20 minutes.

Which type of cardio burns more fat?

The choice of exercise also matters if you're using cardio to lose weight.

If the different types of cardio were to hold a popularity contest, I’m pretty sure METCON would win – hands-down. And I think you’d agree. METCON is definitely sexy. It gets you panting. Sweating. Even burning fat long after the session has ended. 

But … is that true? 

When it comes to burning calories (and thus, fat), not really. A 2015 meta-analysis found that both high-intensity cardio protocol and steady-state cardio took about 40 to 45 minutes to burn an equivalent number of calories (28). 

Oof. What about the afterburn effect (EPOC) then? According to the same study, HIIT indeed provided a 7% higher afterburn than steady-state cardio. 

To put this into perspective: if you’re comparing between a 30-minute HIIT workout and 30 minutes of cardio, that’s just 14 to 21 calories. Are you starting to feel like your life has been a lie? To be completely honest, I did too. But hey, there’s a silver lining. 

A high-intensity cardio protocol might not burn more calories than steady-state cardio. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless! It brings about its own sets of benefits too:

  • More muscle-sparing: Looking to maximize muscle growth? Research indicates that high-intensity cardio can be more muscle-sparing than steady-state cardio (29, 30, 31). That is, provided that you can recover from the intense sessions. 
  • Can be more enjoyable: Not everyone enjoys steady-state cardio. If the thought of walking on a treadmill makes you want to throw up, maybe high-intensity cardio is the way to go. Go for a training method that gets you excited! More importantly, one that you see yourself sticking to long-term.   

Implement a mix of cardio training styles

Note that you don’t have to see high-intensity cardio and steady-state cardio as an either/or choice.

The truth is, you can implement both in your training plan. Just remember to plan it in an enjoyable and sustainable way. Do everything you can to keep your workout motivation high.

If you’re planning on doing 3 sessions of cardio each week, slotting a steady-state session between two high-intensity ones can help your body better recover. Thus, helping you progress in your fitness journey. Instead of setting you back!

Of course, for effective and sustainable weight loss – always remember to include strength training in your plan.

While cardio might burn more calories during the workout itself, strength training offers a unique set of weight loss benefits you wouldn’t want to miss out on. Here’s an article on strength training vs. cardio you should check out.

Summary

  • High-intensity cardio activities may not necessarily burn more calories than steady-state cardio
  • That said, it can bring about its own set of benefits:
    • More muscle-sparing
    • Can be more enjoyable
  • To help your body with recovery, consider implementing a mixture of cardio training styles   

Is too much cardio bad?

Too much cardio could result in a larger than needed calorie deficit. This could result in you losing muscle mass.

Unfortunately, yes – this is not one of the many women’s fitness myths out there. Too much cardio is definitely a bad thing. See – if you start becoming a slave to the treadmill, Stairmaster, or endless circuits, you can begin to lose muscle. More is not always better. 

Remember: only do as much cardio as you need to lose 0.5% to 1% of your body weight per week. Anything more, and you’re compromising your hard-earned lean muscle mass (32). 

All that hard work!

How much cardio per week is too much?

Of course, you want specifics. Just how much cardio per week is too much? 

You’re probably going to be mad, but there’s no exact answer for how much cardio to lose weight is too much. But here’s a very rough estimation. 

If you’re not a professional athlete, anything over 60 to 70 minutes every day of the week is likely counterproductive.

This is especially if you’re going into a much larger calorie deficit than is needed to achieve your weight loss goals in a sustainable manner. 

Signs that you’re overdoing it

The amount of ‘maximum beneficial cardio’ (a term I just made up, of course) differs between individuals. 

Regardless, there is a sure-fire way of knowing if you’re pushing your body too hard. And that is to keep a lookout for the following signs of overtraining (33):

  • Your performance is suffering
  • You’re falling ill more frequently 
  • You’re always sore
  • You lose your period
  • You’re losing more weight than normal
  • You have trouble sleeping
  • Your mood is all over the place
  • You’ve lost your appetite
  • You’ve lost your enthusiasm for your training routine

Summary

  • Too much cardio can be a bad thing; it can cause you to lose your hard-earned muscle
  • If you notice the following signs, you’re definitely pushing yourself too hard:
    • Your performance is suffering
    • You’re falling ill more frequently 
    • You’re always sore
    • You lose your period
    • You’re losing more weight than normal
    • You have trouble sleeping
    • Your mood is all over the place
    • You’ve lost your appetite
    • You’ve lost your enthusiasm for your training routine

Always train smart and happy

That’s it – we’ve come to the end of the article! I hope you’ve gotten a clearer idea of why doing cardio to lose weight works and how much you actually need. 

Ultimately, just remember that you should only do as much cardio as is needed to help you achieve your weight loss goals. And trust me, once you’ve done the work to calculate just how many calories you need to burn, you’ll find that you won’t need as much cardio as you thought you did. 

And as with any attempts at losing weight, don’t rush the process. You can learn about all the interesting evidence-based weight loss tips, but the key is to always be patient and take it slow. 

Fitness should be fun. Do what you enjoy, so it’s sustainable for you. You’re in it for the long haul, after all! 

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