From sweaty spin class to lunchtime treadmill sprints, these grueling (and sometimes boring) workouts are hard. But, they burn a considerable amount of calories.
Having worked at various fitness centers and seeing active individuals kill themselves on cardio machines with no results, I had to ask myself, “can cardio can make you fat?” So, I did a marathon of research to find the answer.
Can cardio make you fat? No, cardio does not make you fat. If you’re gaining fat, it’s because you consume more energy than you burn. You will lose fat if you’re being honest that you’re pushing yourself while doing cardio, following a healthy diet, incorporating strength training, and not thinking that you can eat more to ‘make up’ for calories that you burned.
As you can tell, it’s crucial to understand that certain situations or habits you do during or alongside your cardio can increase the likelihood to gain body fat.
Let’s dive in further to understand cardio and the effect it has on our weight.
Can Cardio Make You Fat: 5 Things to Consider
Cardio can’t directly cause you to gain weight or fat.
According to Mayoclinic, how you eat and drink in addition to your physical activity level are things that ultimately determine your weight.
This is also impacted by your metabolism — the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy.
Your metabolism includes the energy it takes to do daily functions such as breathing, circulation, hormone production, and growing and repairing cells. You also burn energy through the digestion process and to breakdown food. Then, you burn energy through physical activity.
There are certain factors that influence how your body stores energy. This includes how and what you eat, the balance of exercise you get, and how hard you work out.
If you’re not losing weight while doing cardio, then you’ll want to consider the following 5 factors.
1. NUTRITION IS KEY
According to studies and health experts, a key strategy for weight management that can be applied to different diets is to reduce overall caloric intake. Clinical trials have shown that reducing energy density is effective for weight loss and maintenance.
If your goal is to lose or maintain your weight, you can focus on reducing the energy density of food, watch your portions, and improve your diet quality.
What is energy density?
Energy density is the amount of energy (calories) per gram of food. Lower energy-dense foods have fewer calories per gram. So if your goal is to lose or maintain weight, you can have satisfying potions of food with relatively low-calorie content.
For example, 1 cup of broccoli has about 30 calories, compared to oil which has about 1,900 calories per cup.
Not to say that you should avoid oil, but it’s helpful to know which foods are better in moderation and controlled portions.
Related Article: Check Out What 3 Pro Bodybuilders Do For Cardio
What about portion control and size?
Portion control is managing how much you eat by aiming for recommended serving sizes by food authorities such as ChooseMyPlate.
Some tips for managing your portions includes using smaller dinnerware, using measuring utensils or even your hands as portion guides, and asking for half portions or pre-packaged doggy bags when going out to eat.
What about diet quality?
What you eat has a tremendous impact on your body composition and health. In order to improve your diet quality, think about whole foods. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant-based fats, and healthy sources of protein.
Lower quality foods are those that are processed or packaged. They tend to include more sugar, preservatives such as salt, and unhealthy fats. They also tend to have high amounts of calories and aren’t very satisfying, meaning more cravings and eating more.
But make sure to eat enough…
It may come as a surprise but when you don’t eat enough, especially while doing lots of cardio, it can prevent you from losing weight. It can even be dangerous.
Let me explain further.
In order to maintain your muscles, you need to eat enough food.
Think of it this way: your body is designed to prevent you from starving. If you “fight” against it by restricting calories too much and engaging in too much cardio, your body will decrease your metabolism in order to compensate for this. Slow metabolism is not something you want.
Related Article: Can Cardio Burn Muscle? (Yes, Here’s How)
Therefore, you want to ensure you’re eating fewer calories than you burn in order to lose weight. But not so much where you’re starving all of the time.
Not sure how much you need? Check out our article on how to calculate your calorie for weight loss.
2. INCORPORATE RESISTANCE TRAINING
There are many reasons why people may avoid resistance training, but one of the common myths is that cardio burns a lot more calories than resistance training.
This is not true.
Cardio does give you a quick calorie burn that is typically more than what you would burn during a weight training session.
However, studies show that resistance training will have a greater impact throughout the day. What this means is that you will continue to burn calories throughout the day as your body works to repair muscle tissue. Additionally, muscle burns more calories at rest than other tissues such as fat.
Therefore, weight training is more effective than cardio at building muscle and losing weight.
Diabetes Strong explains that when you’re losing weight by only doing cardio, you generally lose both fat and muscle. If resistance training isn’t part of your exercise routine, you could potentially be slowing down your metabolism due to losing lean muscle mass. This is even more likely to happen if you’re also restricting calories.
Learn more about resistance training with examples here: Strength Training vs. Weight Training: What’s the Difference?
If you’re looking for a workout program that is personalized based on your level of experience and goals, check out Fitbod. You can get 3 free workouts by downloading the app HERE.
Related Article: Are Exercise Bikes Good For Weight Loss? (Yes, Here’s Why)
3. EASY WORKOUTS DON’T EQUAL RESULTS
How many times have you seen someone spending more energy moving their phone screen than actually working out at the gym?
Going too easy can also mean that you do the same workout time and time again. Your body will actually adapt to the exercise you’re doing which can lead to a plateau. If you want to see results, focus on changing up one or more elements of the F.I.T.T. Principle every few months.
What is the F.T.T.T Principle?
F.I.T.T stands for frequency, intensity, time, and type. This is a very important concept that applies to any sort of successful fitness routine.
Frequency: Hw often you exercise
Intensity: How hard you workout
Time: How long you’re active
Type: The kind of exercise you do
In an American College of Sports Medicine article, author Grace DeSimone describes when people follow the F.I.T.T. principle throughout their life, they maintain their weight over the years and can ‘keep off’ weight they’ve already lost (instead of rebounding).
Here’s what the American College of Sports Medicine recommends as a goal for a F.I.T.T. program:
Frequency: 3-5 times per week
Intensity: 60%-85% of your maximum heart rate
Time: 20-60 minutes
Frequency: Minimum of 2 times per week
Intensity: 70%-80% of your one-rep maximum
Time: 8-10 reps per exercise and 1-3 sets
This Fitbod app uses F.I.T.T principles to design workouts based on your logged training. It will give you both cardio and weight training workouts that progress over time.
Related Article: The Top 5 Cardio Machines That Are Good For Weight Loss
4. YOU’RE GOING TOO HARD
Too much of a good thing can be bad for you.
Especially when you first start a new exercise routine, you may want to spend hours at the gym. You’re excited to see results. But, overtraining can be bad for your health and even lead to weight gain.
Although exercise is extremely healthy, too much can actually be a stress on the body.
Overtraining happens when you go too hard, too often, or don’t take time to recover. This can increase inflammation as well as the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol can lead to fatigue and weight gain, especially around your belly.
Exercising too much can also cause excess inflammation in your body. There’s a growing amount of research that confirms the association between inflammation and obesity.
You have to be honest with yourself if you fall into this category.
If you’ve been doing hours of cardio on end, without rest days in between, then you may need to schedule a deload or some recovery protocols into your training program.
You can our article on recovery from hard training.
Related Article: Cardio for Beginners: 6 Mistakes to Avoid (Plus 3 Workouts)
5. YOU’RE SELF-SABOTAGING OR COMPENSATING
Have you ever had a killer workout in the morning then “treated yourself” to brunch, a buffet lunch, a cookie for a snack, and ice cream for dinner? Yeah us too.
Studies show that weight loss as a result of an exercise intervention tends to be lower than predicted. This is in part because we tend to compensate by increasing our food intake.
Many people also greatly overestimate how many calories they burn when working out.
A Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness study found that people tend to estimate their calorie burn th
ree to four times what they actually burn. And when they were asked to replenish what they lost via exercise, they ate more than twice as many calories as they burned.
Just because you burn calories through cardio, doesn’t qualify you to over-eat. Remember the principles I mentioned earlier about energy density, portion control, and food quality.
How to Start a Cardio Program
Now that you know the benefits of cardio and what to consider in terms of how it impacts your weight, let’s now discuss how to incorporate it into your daily routine.
When it comes to cardio or any exercise for that matter, if you’re telling yourself you just don’t have the time, consider doing a little each day.
INTEGRATE IT INTO YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE
Find ways to plug it into your day. Say for instance you love binge-watching Netflix when you get home.
Can you set up an exercise bike to ride while you watch?
Or maybe you take the elevator at work. Can you try the stairs instead?
Do you drive to work? Can you park further away and get an extra few minutes of walking in?
Every little bit helps!
DOING CARDIO OUTDOORS
The trick is to think of what’s available to you and what you’ll actually be motivated to do.
For instance, do you have access to being outside and love the feel of fresh air on your face or seeing the trees pass by? Maybe you can start biking to work.
Or perhaps you love walking and can do a long walk on the weekend.
All are excellent sources of cardio.
DOING CARDIO AT THE GYM
If you like the gym, there’s almost always access to treadmills and stationary bikes.
Most also have ellipticals, rowing machines, stair climbers, and rowing machines.
Don’t know or don’t feel confident using them? Just ask one of the gym employees or download the Fitbod app and get guided step-by-step through your workout.
WORKING OUT AT HOME
At-home workouts are one of the quickest, easiest. and cost-effective ways to get in some cardio.
At-home cardio includes fitness apps, video instruction, online exercises, or ones you can do on your own such as jogging in place, jumping jacks, jumping rope, or dancing.
On the Fitbod app, you can select your available equipment and the workouts will only use what you have.
Cardio does not directly make you fat. What’s most important is focusing on a healthy diet and active lifestyle that promotes a proper calorie balance for your body.
However, some factors that may make your body hold onto fat more easily include what you eat, how easy or hard your workout is, and whether you’re being honest to yourself when it comes to compensating for calories burned.
Find a routine that’s not extreme (too easy or too hard) and balance it with resistance training.
Most important, find a cardio exercise that you like and that’s accessible to you. The more you enjoy it, the more motivated you’ll be on your path to the finish line!
About The Author
Lisa is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) with over 15 years of experience in nutrition, fitness, and mental health coaching and education. She studied Foods and Nutrition at San Diego State University and earned a Master of Science in Holistic Nutrition at Hawthorn University.
Having certifications and experience in group exercise, intuitive eating, coaching and psychotherapy, and digestive wellness, she’s enthusiastic about the relationship between the body and mind.
She’s dedicated to helping people understand how to implement healthy habit change, while gaining a deeper understanding of what makes them feel their personal best.