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Does Cardio Burn Fat?

An Expert Explains Why Too Much Cardio Is "Counterproductive" to Losing Fat and Building Muscle

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When it comes to exercise, there isn't one best way to lose fat. In general, to reduce body fat, most experts recommend a balance of cardio and strength training along with proper nutrition. To find out the benefits of cardio for fat loss and whether or not it actually burns body fat, POPSUGAR spoke with Rondel King, MS, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at NYU Langone's Sports Performance Centre.

The Pros and Cons of Cardio For Fat Loss

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine reported that cardiovascular forms of exercise like walking, swimming, cycling, and stair climbing reduced type 2 diabetes, some cancers, falls, osteoporotic fractures, and depression. They also found that there was an improvement in physical function, weight management, cognitive function, and enhancement of the quality of life. Overall, cardio is good for your health; however, when it comes to fat loss, it may not be your best option.

"If you're continuously doing long, drawn out cardio and you're trying to lose weight, than that could be counterproductive because that may be catabolic to your overall system," Rondel told POPSUGAR. Catabolic is the process of muscle tissue breaking down. He explained that too much of this type of cardio will cause an increase in stress hormones, such as cortisol, which are "very catabolic in nature" and do not promote tissue growth to an extent. "It can help you lose weight but also cause you to lose muscle mass," he said.

Better Ways to Burn Fat

Cardio can help you burn fat but as Rondel stated, you'll more than likely lose muscle mass. To prevent that from occurring, Rondel recommended high-intensity interval training (HIIT) because, "It gives you a hormonal response that's conducive to muscle growth and it's more anabolic — where you're developing tissue, muscles, collagen, cartilage; things of that nature," he said. HIIT also "produces precursors to things like testosterone and growth hormone and things that will potentially help you increase your lean muscle mass," he explained.

Strength training is also imperative in order to lose body fat and build muscle. According to Rondel, your strength sessions should incorporate compound exercises because they require more energy to perform and burn more calories and fat. Your workouts should also focus on muscle hypertrophy (maximal muscle growth) where you perform three to five sets of 12 to 15 reps per exercise. On average, Rondel said you should strength train a minimum of two to three times a week. If you aren't sure where to begin when it comes to strength training, start with this four-week program.

Some people may notice a change in their physique from steady-state cardio and some will not. At the end of the day, Rondel said, "There's a lot of variability, we're all different, and our bodies will respond differently to these hormonal responses."

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