Picture of hamburger and friesPeople ask me all the time about the amount of cardio they’ll need to do to lose weight.  The answer is simple and not so simple.  I’ll give you my top five answers.  You’ll notice that, politician-like, I don’t directly answer the question, but I hope you can get the idea of how to think about and deal with cardio.

Cardio alone won’t make you lose weight.  No amount of exercise will out do an ill-conceived nutrition plan (or one you don’t follow).  You can do two hours of cardio a day, but if you eat a hamburger, french fries and a shake for dinner, you can’t really expect to lose weight. Keep reading…

 30 – 60 minutes per day – depending… Bodies are all different, so how much cardio you have to do will depend on how intense your workout is, how big you are, how fit you are and even how old you are. 

Picture of a stopwatchIf you are 50 years old, 50lbs over weight and you’ve been sedentary for the last six years; your 30-60 minutes of walking every day will have big pay-offs.  For me, at 46 and a few extra pounds on my body, I would have to do 2 hours of cardio per day to see a difference.  Don’t get too disheartened – I already do at least an hour a day anyway.  I am fit already, so for me to lose weight by cardio-loading, I would have to move into my gym. 

Most trainers (and the American Heart Association recommend 30 – 60 consecutive minutes per day with an elevated heart rate.  If you need to – split it up into 20-30 minute increments.  Don’t count the warm up or the cool down (5 minutes max on either end of the cardio work, so a 30 minute walk logs in at 20-25 minutes of cardio).  The fact is, the more you do, the more calories you will burn. And…keep reading…

Two ladies walkingYou cannot do too much cardio. Go ahead and be active.  Really active.  Don’t hold back.  Test your body and see what blows your skirt up.  It’s not the most scientific way to count actual burnage, but most people burn anywhere from 250 to 500 calories per workout.  That’s an average workout.  Probably 50-70 minutes of moderate to intense exercise.  Sweating is no gauge of intensity either.  If you know me, you’ve seen me sweat before the warm up is finished, so don’t judge by that. 

Judge by perceived rate of exertion.  You should be able to have a conversation while you are working out – perhaps not about anything important since you should be laboring in it a bit, but you shouldn’t be sucking wind.  Too high an intensity over time will lead to burn out, injury and unsustainability. Also, remember that revving up your system with regular cardio activity revs up your system for the whole day.  That’s why you’ve heard the recommendation to exercise in the morning.  Doing housework, raking leaves, running, swimming, shoveling, playing, dancing…these are all cardio activities.  As you do more, you will notice that each one becomes easier as your body gets the message of its own fitness.  Then, guess what?  Time to step it up again.

Polar Heart Rate monitorGet a heart rate monitor and set a goal that is do-able for you.

When I was just starting out I got myself a Polar Heart-Rate Monitor.  I programed in my age, height, weight, approximate physical intensity in an average day, resting heart-rate and gender.  While I exercised, I wore the receiver around my wrist and the transmitter around my ribcage and I got all the feedback I could want.  I set goals from calories I wanted to reach per week to miles I wanted to travel to minutes I wanted to log.  I never got bored with that device.  It was very satisfying to see my weekly stats every Sunday night.  Once I did 12,000 calories in a week.  I think I was at a Nia training or a fitness conference. 

If you are looking to burn calories, the heart rate monitor will be a good motivator.  It gives you feedback in real time.  Then, know the following…

A pound of body fat equates to approximately 3500 calories. That is to burn through it.  Think of lighting a pound of Crisco on fire and seeing how long it lasts. 

So, if you have a calorie deficit of 500 calories (meaning that you burn 500 calories more than you eat each day) you would lose approximately one pound per week (500 x 7 = 3,500). 

Ideally, you will eat 250 calories less and burn 250 in a workout.  That’s reasonable.  One less Frappuccino plus one hour of cardio per day = one pound off per week if all other factors remain the same.  Keep a log somewhere.

Day timer with stars on itMost importantly, keep a record of what you are doing. 

I write my food intake down in a separate journal  and I write my cardio in my day-timer and I give myself stars to show my success.

Happy cardioing!

P.S. I count my hour-long Nia classes as 30-40 minutes of cardio.