How Much Cardio Do You Really Need?

Shannon Farrell
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

An hour on the elliptical followed by 30 minutes on the treadmill? Who has time for that? While cardio does help you shed calories, pouring hours into a cardio-only routine is not the secret to losing weight. In fact, too many hours put in has its downsides, like losing muscle tone and getting injured. Top health experts provided us with the formula for finding that happy middle—putting in just enough time for targeted results.

There Is Such a Thing as Too Much
“You have about 15-20 minutes of readily available energy stored in your muscles,” says Mark Perloe, M.D. “After about 20 minutes of aerobic activity, the muscles start using protein for energy and break down muscle fibers. The result is that prolonged aerobic activity can result in muscle loss.” He explains that the loss of muscle actually makes it more difficult to lose weight. “While aerobic exercise can increase exercise endurance, it does not actually protect the heart! Strength training exercise that builds muscle is the best way to both lose weight and protect the heart. As muscle is responsible for clearing about 80 percent of the glucose [sugar] in the circulation, by increasing muscle, you ultimately lower insulin, reduce the risk of type II diabetes, as well as cholesterol.”

Perform Based on Your Needs
The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week for basic heart health. Fitness expert and Bowflex fitness advisor Tom Holland tweaks this recommendation for each individual client by having them do the same number in minutes per week of cardio as their weight in pounds. “So, if you weigh 100 pounds, you do 100 minutes per week. If you weigh 160 pounds, then it’s 160 minutes per week. This scales perfectly for those who need more cardio exercise, and as you lose weight, you are rewarded with less time spent doing cardio and more time doing other forms of exercise like strength work.” To increase weight loss, Tom says to simply increase the intensity of each cardio session rather than the duration.

You Need Balance
Holland believes we need a mix of strength work, cardiovascular exercise, balance and flexibility work. “One of the most effective methods, in terms of time as well as results, is to perform circuit training workouts, combining cardiovascular exercise with resistance training.” Holland recommends aiming for two to three sessions per week of circuit training along with one to three sessions of balance and flexibility work, such as yoga and Pilates.

Julia Chan, a personal trainer and yoga teacher, agrees. “You never want to do the same workout routine over and over again as your body will adapt and it’s just boring. Mix things up as your body will need to work other muscles too. Yoga is great for lengthening. Boxing is great to work on your reaction time and defense skills but also to get a great workout. Pilates is fantastic for lengthening and to focus on the core.”

Every Little Bit Counts
On the opposite spectrum, short bouts of cardio are worth your time. “For women specifically not in a regular exercise routine or who are more sporadic in her exercises, starting slowly as tolerated for short time-frames and gradually increasing as tolerated is the way to go,” says David A. Friedman, M.D. “[There is] nothing wrong with exercising in divided doses throughout the day as work and personal responsibilities allow, with 5-10 minutes per session/3x per day as an example.” The minutes will add up.

Read more: 5 Healthy Diet Tweaks to Make Right Now

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