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Does Cardio Burn Fat?

cardioCommon wisdom holds that weight lifting builds muscle and cardio burns fat. However, rigorous cardio helps tone your legs, and weight lifting stimulates hormones beneficial to weight loss. A mixture of cardio, sprinting, and weight training will be the most effective, with emphasis depending on your current fitness level and your goals.

Cardio is good for building endurance, and it certainly burns calories. As I like to say, any exercise is better than no exercise, so if it’s the only thing you enjoy, never feel bad about doing cardio. However, it has been shown that the total calories burned over a 36 hour period from half an hour of cardio is actually less than those burned from half an hour of weight training, despite the fact that you would burn more calories during that half hour if you spent it on an elliptical. You should still incorporate cardio, as it helps strengthen your heart and lungs, and is a crucial part of warmup and cool down for every routine.

Weight training has two main avenues for fat burning. First, in addition to the energy burned immediately while lifting weights, your body will require energy over the next couple days to repair the damage done to the muscle. Damage, you ask? Yes, the point of lifting is actually to stress the muscles and cause minor damage to the fibers. Later, the body will heal the fibers stronger than they were before. These slightly denser or larger muscles, in addition to improving your physique, are actually the other way you’ll burn calories. Extra muscle means your basal metabolic rate will be higher. You’ll burn fat just to support the extra lean weight in your body!

The fastest way to burn fat is anaerobic exercise. Sprinting may not sound like fun, but there are a number of ways to mix it up in your routine and make it fun. At your local park, put two markers about 80 to 100 feet apart, and have a stack of 6 plastic orange cones (you can buy these at any sports store) at one end. Grab one cone, get it to the other end as fast as possible, return and do it again until all the cones are moved. See how fast you can do it and turn it into a game! After moving all the cones, wait 1 minute and then run the cones back as fast as you can. At the end of each set you should be out of breath and feel a burn in your legs. After four sets you should be pretty ready to collapse on the ground.

At the gym you can replicate interval sprinting on a rowing machine or an elliptical with a simple pattern. Set the machine at the highest level that you can sustain for a normal cardio set (as in, you could keep up that setting at your normal pace for up to 10 minutes). Warm up for two minutes, then as soon as the clock hits 2:00, start pushing as hard as you can. If your legs feel like their flying, you can pop the resistance up by one or two, but I don’t find it necessary. You know you’re doing it right if you start to hate me after about one minute. You should be struggling to continue after 90 seconds and when you finally get to 2 minutes (the clock now reads 4:00), you can stop. If you feel like you could have kept it up longer, then use a higher setting next time.

Speaking of which, you now get to do the next minute as slowly as you want (even drop the difficulty level a notch or two if you need to), but don’t stop moving. At 5:00, try to resume your normal cardio rate and start the pattern over. So, at 7:00 you’ll be sprinting again. Ideally, do four sets, totaling 20 minutes. The machine will probably claim you’ve burned 20%-50% more calories than normal, but actually those minutes you spent in agony, muscles on fire, and short of breath are worth ten times as much as regular cardio. It causes hormones to release that make your fat cells burn fat for energy as if you were running for your life and needed every last ounce of strength. Because that’s how hard you were pushing yourself. Good job!

For my typical week, I have found the best mix is three days of weight training (which does include some warmup and cool down cardio), with two days of intervals or conditioning and one or two days of light cardio.

As I like to remind my regular readers, any exercise is better than no exercise. But, if you can manage it, a weekly routine mixing weight lifting, cardio, and sprints will be the most effective for burning fat, rather than cardio alone. And a little muscle definition is always a good thing, even for the ladies.