Why Your Cardio Sessions Might Be Hurting More Than Helping

*For the purpose of this post, Cardio = running, jogging, biking, elliptical at a moderate pace for 45-60ish+ minutes*

Whether it be running for fat loss, participating in as many charity 10k’s as possible, or just cardio-ing because it’s all one knows how to do – it may be hurting your goals more than it is helping.

For some reason “running a half/full/marathon or 10k, etc” is still seen to many as a pinnacle of health. I get it. It’s an easily measurable goal. You either complete the race in a target time, or you don’t.

When working with overweight clients, I often hear that a goal is to run a race ONCE they finish a program, or once they lose weight. This is great. I have nothing against setting a performance goal if that is what people are after and enjoy doing.

However, for many looking to improve body composition – i.e fatloss – traditional cardio may not be the best way to get there, and it even may cause you to go in the other direction.

How can this be?

To reiterate, I want to be clear – this is NOT a cardio shaming post. If you want to get better at running, then run – assuming your body is ready for it.

People often say they want to start running to get fit – however, I see it more as you should get fit to run.

1) If overweight, running can cause joint issues – and leave you stuck on the couch.

Between muscle imbalances, joint weakness, and extra body weight – running can put a damper on your overall well being. Overuse injuries are very common among endurance athletes, and can become even more problematic for the average trainee looking to shed some fat.

When you run, you place extra strain on the joints of your hips, knees, ankles and feet.

Every step you take walking exerts a load on the knee 2 to 3 times your body weight. The force exerted from running increases that load to anywhere between 5 to 12 times your weight.

If you are just running, and not cross training and strengthening your muscles and joints with resistance training, this can add up to some serious orthopedic issues.

Tip: Instead of strapping your shoes up and just running to lose fat, meet with a trainer and nutrition expert and get your diet on track and balance your cardio training with strength training. Diet is the BIGGEST culprit leading to being overweight, so get that in check FIRST.

2) Traditional cardio can easily be offset by one poor nutrition choice.

When doing “cardio” (moderate pace, 45-60+ min) people often experience more hunger throughout the day. This could be from a few different aspects:

1- Dehydration – if you are a heavy sweater, and cardio makes you sweat a ton, it is easy to become dehydrated. Most people walk around day to day in a general dehydrated state as it is. Often times, we can confuse dehydration for hunger.

Make sure you are drinking AT LEAST half your body weight in ounces of water. To clarify, if you weigh 200 pounds, you should be drinking at least 100 ounces of water (not 100 lbs. of water 🙂 

2- Changes in hunger hormones. It has been found that aerobic exercise done around 70% of VO2max (essentially jogging at 70% of your max sprint effort) can trigger increases in hunger, leading you to subconciously increase your caloric intake for the day. Conversely, exercise done at a lower level (walking) does not trigger the same response.

You should track food, and know what calorie level you should be consuming to lose weight. If you are aware of your caloric goal, or are well in tune with your food intake, you should be able to account for increases in hunger and eat accordingly without overeating. Also, use walking to create a caloric deficit without triggering changes in hunger hormones. 10,000+ steps/ day is a great start! 

3- You consciously over consume calories either because you underestimate your output, or feel like you “earned” more food. It has been said that ON AVERAGE, you burn 100 calories for every mile travelled. Say you run 3 miles over 30 minutes, this could only be an extra 300 calories. If you eat calorie dense foods, this number can easily be surpassed through poor food choices.

Again, know your caloric intake goals. Don’t “earn” more food – you aren’t a dog. 


3) Traditional cardio is very adaptable, and can eventually lead to a metabolic standstill. 

When it comes to fat loss, we need to be as inefficient as possible. Think Toyota Prius (very efficient fuel usage) vs. Hummer Hum-V (inefficient fuel usage). If you continuously run, run and run – your body becomes efficient and good at running. For performance this is great. For fat loss, not so much.

Progressive strength training, sprint work, weighted cardio (sleds, swings, carries) are great inefficient forms of fitness – that also help maintain AND build muscle which = higher metabolic rate which = more calories burned at rest.

Those losing ‘weight’ via excessive cardio gain it back easily because their body has become metabolically inactive. Muscle can be lost via excessive cardio and excessive caloric restriction.The reductions in muscle and RMR (resting metabolic rate) have made storing more fat likely and burning more difficult.

Sadly, even those that manage to maintain their new weight wind up with a high-fat, low-muscle physique that isn’t strong, muscular, or looks the way they want it to.

Exercise, especially weight training, should focus on building and maintaining muscle, not burning calories. This translates to a higher metabolic rate, lower fat storage rate, and decreased risk of degenerative disease and mortality.

What to do?

In a nutshell, and the most simplified terms, this is what I would recommend for fatloss, and creating your ideal physique.

  1. Figure out how much you are currently eating, and eat slightly less. Keep protein around 1 gram/pound of body weight or 1-2 palm sizes of protein foods at each meal + possibly add one protein shake per day. Fill in the rest with reasonable carbs and fat.
  2. Lift weights, 3-4 times per week, hitting multi-joint lifts primarily (presses, rows, squat varations, and hip hinges)
  3. Walk everyday – shooting for 10000 steps. If you get these steps during your workday, great. If not, add in a walk after dinner, or early in the morning.
  4. Keep cardio short, sweet, and intense – with ample rest. Sled push or sprint for 10 seconds, rest for 50 seconds – repeat 10 times, and call it a session.
  5. If you want to keep cardio-ing, stay aware of your intake – if your body isn’t changing the way you want, see tips 1 through 4.



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Stay healthy my friends,


Published by Mike Gorski

Registered Dietitian and Fitness Coach OWNER OF MG FIT LIFE LLC