If losing weight was only about burning as many calories as possible, weight-loss plans would be easy: you'd just do long runs, cardio workouts, or bike rides every single day. It's true that cardio is good for weight loss, but you shouldn't do cardio every day to lose weight. That's because daily cardio can not only be boring, which makes it hard to do consistently, but it's also inefficient compared with more diverse workout routines that include strength training.
In fact, building muscle has more of a positive effect on your metabolism than the walks, runs, and cycling sessions you do for cardio. Ideally, both will be included in your workout routine, which means you don't want to be maxing out on cardio every day. So how much cardio should you do to lose weight, and what is the right ratio of cardio to strength workouts? And why shouldn't you do cardio every day? POPSUGAR talked to two experts to get the answers.
Should You Do Cardio Every Day to Lose Weight?
It's true that the more cardio you do, the more calories you'll burn. That's helpful for that bottom line of exhausting more calories than you consume, which does ultimately lead to weight loss, said Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and Bowflex fitness adviser. So why is it so important to mix in other types of workouts, especially strength training?
- Strength training helps your metabolism. Strength training might not burn as many calories in the moment, but building muscle boosts your metabolism, which means you burn more calories even when you're resting. "Strength training is a powerful and important component of weight loss," Holland told POPSUGAR. "So solely engaging in cardio workouts is not the most effective approach."
- Doing cardio every day can lead to injury. If you only do one kind of exercise, every day, you put your body at risk of overuse injuries. Cardio is a major culprit of this because movements like running and jumping put so much pressure on your joints. Injuring yourself out of your workout routine will definitely be a setback to your weight-loss goals.
- Mixing up your workout routine keeps you engaged and motivated. "The more you mix up your workouts, the greater the physical and mental benefits," Holland told POPSUGAR. A workout routine with plenty of variety is more challenging for your body and engaging for your mind, which will keep you on track and motivated when a more boring routine might burn you out.
"For my clients with weight-loss goals, I want them doing a combination of cardio and resistance training like weightlifting. They are both important to the reduction of body fat," said Austin Johnson, NCSF, a certified personal trainer for Gold's Gym. This four-week workout plan for weight loss, for example, includes a good balance of both.
You don't necessarily have to go for a run, swim laps, or hit the elliptical for your exercise to qualify as cardio, either. "If there are days when you can't make it to the gym to get in a structured cardio workout, then going for a walk or jog around the neighborhood is certainly better than nothing," Johnson said. As long as you're doing it for long enough — 30 minutes is a good place to start — and getting your heart rate up to at least 60 to 70 percent of your maximum, walks or slow, casual jogs can help you lose weight, Johnson told POPSUGAR.
You can even break that cardio up throughout the day, Holland added. "Research shows that exercise does not have to be done all at the same time," he said. "Breaking it up into shorter, manageable bouts throughout the day is an effective strategy, especially for the time-crunched." Taking three brisk 10-minute walks throughout your day, for example, can get you up to a full half hour of low-intensity cardio. Done consistently, this kind of daily cardio can help you lose weight over time.
Add Intervals to Lose Weight Faster
To up your calorie burn, Holland recommended incorporating intervals into some of your cardio workouts. "For maximum results, your cardio workouts should include a mix of steady-state sessions, interval work, and hills," he said. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Work up to intervals over time. Though it's great for burning fat, "interval training is much more intense and puts a strain on your body," Johnson said. Start with steady-state workouts to build up your cardiovascular endurance. After a few weeks, experiment with adding in short intervals twice a week.
- Keep interval workouts shorter. Interval workouts are perfect for weekday cardio sessions: they should be around 30 minutes long. The shorter time limit is meant to help you maintain your intensity the whole time so you can get the most benefit out of the workout.
How Often Should I Do Cardio to Lose Weight?
Let's go back to that balance of cardio with strength training. If your goal is to lose weight, you're going to want to include both in your weekly routine. You can do both on the same day or even the same workout, Holland said, with a high-intensity interval circuit, for example. However, combining strength and cardio on the same day definitely isn't mandatory; you can lose weight by splitting them up throughout the week as well. If you're a beginner, Johnson recommended this schedule to help you build up strength and endurance:
- Monday: Resistance training, like this 30-minute dumbbell workout
- Tuesday: Cardio, such as walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling
- Wednesday: Cardio
- Thursday: Resistance training, like this seated upper-body workout
- Friday: Cardio
- Saturday: Rest day
- Sunday: Resistance training, like this low-impact bodyweight workout
That's a mix of three days of steady-state cardio workouts, 30 to 60 minutes long, and three days of full-body resistance training using lighter weights. (Here's a guide to choosing the right weight.) Once you start building strength and endurance, you start doing interval training on one or two of your cardio days. Note, too, that a healthy diet including nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, lean protein (chicken, fish, and legumes), and whole grains will help you reach your weight-loss goals and help you feel better while you do it.
The bottom line is that you can do cardio every day if you really love it, but don't push yourself so hard that you'll get injured, and definitely don't skimp on resistance training in favor of cardio. A balanced schedule is key for weight loss, not only because building strength helps your metabolism, but also because variation keeps things interesting, which helps you to stay motivated and on track.
"Realize that your goal is to not only lose weight but to create new healthy habits to keep it off long-term," Holland said. "So your plan needs to be fun, manageable, and for a lifetime."