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Can Too Much Cardio Make You Fat?

When it comes to cardio exercise, too much cardio can have a negative impact on our health and fitness goals.

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Remember when fat was evil? Peanut butter was a no-no and fat-free cookies lined the grocery store shelves, attracting naive consumers who wanted to satisfy their sweet tooth without gaining weight. Eating fat meant you would become fat. The food and fitness industries conformed to this belief, leading consumers to stock up on fat-free candy, pastries and other snacks.

A lot has changed since then as we learn more about the critical and beneficial role of fat in the body.

The Cardio Addiction

When it comes to cardio exercise, many of us are also slow to accept the truth that too much cardio can have a negative impact on our health and fitness goals. We want to scorch calories on the treadmill, saturate that gym towel and spin off our stress in cycle class. We crave endorphins and cling tightly to the belief that a good sweat is the solution to a svelte body. By learning more about the negative effects of excess cardio, you may be more willing to resign from your role as Cardio Queen (or King!) and adapt a strategic approach with proven benefits.

The Side Effects

Remember the rush of sprinting on the bike to Calvin Harris? Or the “top of the world” feeling when you finished your 6-mile run? Exercise is supposed to be a mood booster, but overdoing your cardio sessions can have the opposite effect. Cardio and strength training are physical stressors. Over time, your body adapts to these workloads and becomes stronger. Demanding cardio sessions while dealing with other external life stresses can lead to feelings of tiredness and irritability while lowering your immune health. Overtraining and excess stress can result in a long-term decrement in performance capacity.

The Fat-Loss Plateau

When you first begin working out, you may notice a drop in weight as your body adjusts to the expenditure of additional calories. However, the fat-burning effects of cardio do not have a long-lasting impact on your metabolism. Unlike strength training, as soon as you stop exercising, your body’s metabolism quickly returns to its original state. Besides, weighing less doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll achieve the physique you’re after. Often, as you reduce your body size, you will become a smaller, still “soft,” version of yourself. As your size goes down, chronic cardio also may result in levels of cortisol going up. 

The body releases more cortisol in response to prolonged stress. Increased levels of cortisol induces higher insulin levels, causing blood sugar levels to drop while increasing your cravings for sugary, fatty foods. When stress and cortisol levels are high, your body can become weight-loss resistant. Your body responds to the additional stress by hoarding the food you eat and storing it in your body.

The Solution

Research shows that training three to four hours per day, five or six days per week, provides no greater benefits than when training is limited to only one to one and half hours per day. Using the same methods of training time after time will not result in improved performance. Training must progressively increase in intensity over a period of time. That’s why strength training is a crucial component of any fitness program. By incorporating weights into your routine, you can vary intensity through the number of sets and reps, along with the amount of resistance you’re using.

Try these tips to manage your training habits:

  • Incorporate weight training and resistance workouts that “cycle” in intensity levels.
  • Vary your training methods by doing routines such as high-intensity interval training, Pilates, yoga, higher reps/lower weight strength training and lower reps/higher weight strength training.
  • Get enough sleep and rest — your body needs adequate time to recover and repair itself.
  • Nourish your body with foods that fuel you.
  • Avoid other stressors in your life that can place a toll on your physical, mental and emotional health.