If losing weight was just about burning as many calories as possible, you'd probably be doing straight cardio every day. The truth? Cardio is important, but if weight loss is the goal, it may not be necessary on a daily basis. Doing nothing but cardio day in and day out is not only boring, which can make it hard to stick with long-term, but it's also inefficient compared with more diverse workout routines that include strength training. So what is the right ratio of cardio workouts to see weight-loss success? Should you make cardio a daily habit? POPSUGAR talked to two experts to find out.
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, said Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and Bowflex fitness adviser. "That being said, strength training is a powerful and important component of weight loss," he told POPSUGAR. "So solely engaging in cardio workouts is not the most effective approach." 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.
If you have the time, you certainly can do cardio every day, said Austin Johnson, NCSF, a certified personal trainer for Gold's Gym, but it shouldn't be your only source of exercise. (You'll also want to be careful not to overwork yourself and risk injury.) "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," Johnson told POPSUGAR. 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. "The more you mix up your workouts, the greater the physical and mental benefits," he told POPSUGAR. "For maximum results, your cardio workouts should include a mix of steady-state sessions, interval work, and hills." Interval workouts should be shorter, around 30 minutes, making them perfect for weekday cardio sessions; try this outdoor workout for walking or running to start. When you have more time, such as on the weekends, you can cruise through a longer, lower-intensity run, walk, elliptical workout, or cycling session.
If you're just starting, Johnson recommended working your way 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," he 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.
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, Holland said, especially through a high-intensity interval circuit like this 20-minute beginner's HIIT workout. 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 six-move weightlifting workout
- Tuesday: Cardio, such as walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling
- Wednesday: Cardio
- Thursday: Resistance training, like this beginner's dumbbell workout
- Friday: Cardio
- Saturday: Rest day
- Sunday: Resistance training, like this 20-minute 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 consistent.
"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."