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Will hours of cardio on the treadmill help lose fat?

By March 29, 2011January 13th, 201716 Comments

Another day, another rant.

This one goes out to all of the zombies that pound themselves on the treadmill day in and day out. Do you find yourself in the gym maybe 3 or more days a week, running for an hour then going home to stare at yourself in the mirror wondering why you’ve lost bugger all body fat since you started training months ago?

Or perhaps you do the odd bit of cardio and see the same people training alongside you never looking like they’ve made any fat-loss progress in about ten years.

No I’m not talking out my arse

Besides the fact that there are real-world results out there that support this point of view, there has been a study conducted at the end of last year concerning normal weight men and women and how they overestimate exercise energy expenditure(1) (thanks Martin for the heads up).

This basically means that average Joe is grossly miscalculating their dietary requirements believing that a sh*tload of cardio will, in the long run, burn off those calories we ingest day in and day out.

“If i eat this burger and fries, Ill just run for an hour on the treadmill, and i won’t put on any weight!”

WRONG. Cardio just doesn’t cut it in terms of fat oxidation nor overall energy expenditure. Not only that, to burn off that McHappy meal, you’re gonna have to run for a sh*t-load longer than 1 hour a day. Don’t get me wrong here, the positive effects of cardio on the cardiovascular system are well documented, there are just better ways to lose fat if that is in fact your aim.

Will countless hours of cardio on the treadmill help lose fat?

There are just so many better ways to attack the ‘fat-loss’ problem. Without harping on (as you’ve probably read this before), what you’re shovelling into your pie-hole is what’s going to change your physique, not the countless hours running on a treadmill.

I would go so far as to say it’s probably 80% of the equation.

If I was stuck in a cardio rutt, this is what I’d do to get out of it.

  • Start training with weights. No you won’t get huge over night, but yes the fat burning effects of heavy lifting have also been well documented(2).
  • Add intermittent fasting into the mix. Try either Eat Stop Eat or the leangains approach. If you’re trying to lose stubborn body fat that just won’t seem to shift. Take a squizz at this article.
  • Reduce the amount of cardio you do. Unless you’re training for a cardio-specific event such as the 800 metres at the Olympics, it just isn’t necessary to pound yourself on the treadmill day in and day out.
  • Get your diet in order. This is THE most important part.

Clint’s Note: Own up — Who can’t help themselves doing more cardio than they need to? Comment below.

1 – ‘Normal weight men and women overestimate exercise energy expenditure’ – J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2010 Dec;50(4):377-84
2 – Abid, M. et al. (2009). Physical training combined with dietary measures in the treatment of adult obesity. A comparison of two protocols. Ann Phys Rehabil Med. Jun;52(5):394-413

Clint Nielsen

Author Clint Nielsen

Clint is a dad and husband trying to stay in shape. He's also a highly opinionated fitness enthusiast and author of Reveal The Steel. Follow him on: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Google+

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Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • harley says:

    i dont think i do enough cardio but think that the sporadic HIIT training that I do is better than the hour on the treadmill 3 times a week. Also what about the people who are slaves to spin classes whos figures never change?

    • Clint Nielsen says:

      HIIT is very effective, but not so good for those of us fasting. Apparently its highly catabolic during a fasted state (even with added bcaa’s).
      Unfortunately the ‘need’ to continually do spin classes and the like grows from the belief that the way you train has the biggest effect on maintaining body fat levels (or losing). It doesn’t at all. Sort your diet out :)

  • I like the way you just laid it out quickly with your simple plan to lose fat.
    When I get asked, “how do I lose fat?” I give them some simple tips and I do urge them to do strength training but there is a fear and hesitation to do this.

    I have to explain that the benefits of strength training are huge when it comes to fat loss but more often than not I hear, “maybe I will just do long cardio sessions 6 days a week until I lose the fat, then I will do weights…”

    It can be a bit difficult pointing a person in the right direction even when you show them the proof, more importantly, that long cardio has not gotten them anywhere near their goals.


    • Clint Nielsen says:

      True story.
      It becomes SO engrained into the brains of many that ‘you can’t lose fat without cardio”.
      This simply isn’t the case. I haven’t done any form of cardio for a few months now. Have i maintained my physique? You betcha.
      Perhaps photographic evidence might be the only way to convince your clients :)

  • Much agreed. Too often cardio is pushed primarily as a way to burn calories. From a time management perspective, this is ridiculous. It’s much easier to eat 100 less kcal that it is to run that much off. Better to eat better and move smarter to alter your metabolism and hormones.

  • I have to admit, I haven’t gone for a run, other than some early morning interval sprints at the park, in like 7 years. The last time I used a piece of cardio equipment at the gym, was when I used to use an elliptical to warm up, and that was about 5 years ago. I pretty much rely on diet and high intensity circuits/sprints to cut up. Great post.

  • Cassie says:

    This is a very timely article for me. I train 4 days a week and up until just this week i was doing Body Attack religiously on Mondays. I just stopped – now i do weight training 4 days a week and go for a power walk on my rest day. I’m terrified that this approach will not shift the final flabby bits that i am looking to lose but optimistic and interested to see the results. Wish me luck!

  • Jade says:

    Hi Clint

    Interesting topic and one we have just been discussing on Facebook…

    I agree, it order to benefit the most from fatburning you need to mix it up with resistance training.

    The best time to do cardio would be first thing in the morning on an empty stomach so it goes straight to the fat stores. Or immediatley after training with weights when the glycogen stores have been depleted and the body has to go directly to adipose fat for fuel….HIIT would be good at this point for maximum fat loss!

  • Cardio is pretty useless for weight loss I believe, we can see that from all the overweight joggers.

    If eating a healthy diet with a negative calorie deficit then it will help, but any small amount of increased appetite due to cardio is quick to negate all the calories lost.

  • Jarrod says:

    Great post Clint! What do you think of mixing in an 4-6wk cycle of HIRT for knocking off some extra fat? I’m coming off of a 8wk mass building cycle and I’m not entirly sure of the most efficent way to trim down. Diet is Obvious, but in regards to trainging I want to be sure not to hit a plateau and be able to effectivly trim down by June. Any input would be appreciated. Thanks Clint, Keep up the great work.

  • Bryan says:

    Ah yes. I think everyone does this at first. Especially those people who are just starting to get into shape. It’s okay, I can put away these fries, I made up for it (or will make up for it later) earlier. Well that sounds counter productive. Especially if you are attempting to lose weight. Brilliance by design.

  • Clint,

    Cardio is overrated as far as being a primary weight loss tool. Diet should be the focus and cardio should be a supplement. Personally, I have never set foot on a treadmill in my life. I restrict calories, perform strength training, and try to remain active (by playing soccer and such) and this works for me.


  • Clint Nielsen says:

    @Project Swole
    Great tactics.

    I reckon supplementing another weights day instead of the body-attack session will definitely shed those last layers. Looking forward to the results of this :)

    You just need to be wary of ‘muscle preservation’ during periods of aerobic activity (in particular HIIT). I’d suggest using BCAA’s before and after in order to stem the catabolism.

    Like you’ve pointed out — diet is the key

    HIIT (im guessing you meant) is fine to add in sparingly. You may find your strength decreases during a period of calorie restriction particularly when punishing yourself with such high intensity cardio. Bulking/cutting cycles to me, are largely pointless. You should be able to increase mass without additional fat gain if you get the ‘diet’ right. Fasting would be something you should look at.

    Cardio is most peoples first-stop for fat loss when they start out. Heck, I myself am a perfect example of this (cycling every day was all I did).

    Overrated most certainly :)

  • Definitely agree that diet is key to losing weight and too many people use cardio to try to compensate for poor eating habits. I’ve gone through months where I perform no cardio. However, I do like to use cardio to improve aerobic and anaerobic endurance. Plus, there’s only so few calories I’m willing to cut so I like to incorporate it for some extra fat burning as well, particularly HIIT.

  • I do an hour of cardio a day for reasons unrelated to fat loss (so far it's been a nice side effect, but I started out morbidly obese so any movement would have caused fat loss). I am actually on the treadmill an 30 min to an hour a day for mood management and to increase my cells ability to process sugar. Between diabetes and mild depression, I'm a much healthier and happier person if I get my cardio time in, as much as I hate cardio. There's good reasons to do low and slow that have nothing to do with weight loss and everything to do with neurotransmiters and hormones. :)

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