Is steady state cardio dead?

Originally written for, published 29 September 2014

Aiming to lose weight? The standard answer was always to do cardio. That’s why the cardio room in any gym is always overflowing with people. It isn’t the only answer, but it’s what I’m focusing on today.


1. Steady State Cardio: any cardiovascular activity that is of moderate and steady intensity for an extended period of time. Often it’s somewhere between 30-60 minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less).

2. Interval Training or High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): any activity where you alternate between high and lower intensity. Examples are circuits and CrossFit-type workouts.

Somehow, over the years, we got caught up in the ‘calories in/calories out’ idea and thought that to lose weight (or more specifically to lose fat) we had to get moving for long periods – ie. steady state cardio. Well, it’s true we do need to get moving. But HOW should we move to lose fat most efficiently? After all, we’re all time-poor these days.

If you’re new to exercise, steady state cardio (along with good nutrition and adequate rest) will reduce weight and increase your cardiovascular fitness, which is great.

However your body is an efficient energy-storing machine and quickly realises what you’re doing. It becomes efficient at this exercise thing, and adapts to conserve energy (and fat).

Eventually you’ll burn less and less energy doing the same amount of exercise – not conducive to continued fat loss.

It’s interesting that when you exercise, your body considers it a ‘stress’ on your system. Stress, real or imagined, has the same effect on your body. You go into the ‘fight or flight’ response: you’re familiar with this – blood pressure and heart rate increases, you get sweaty palms, increased alertness etc. The stress hormone cortisol is released by your adrenals to help this along.

Normally this isn’t a problem. However, increased cortisol levels over a prolonged period due to chronic stress (you know, from life in general) and then exercise on top (remember, it’s a ‘stress’ too) will encourage fat to collect around your middle.

Add a calorie-restricted diet and not only will you end up tired and hungry but you’ll add more stress to your system! Hello muffin top.

Steady state cardio of 20 minutes or more will typically shoot cortisol levels through the roof. The good news is cortisol production declines after 90 minutes of steady state cardio if you’re prepared to tough it out. Consider the physique of a sprinter (lean and muscular) or a marathon runner (just plain lean) to that of a 10 km runner (not so lean). Doing 30 minutes of steady state cardio is more likely to have you looking like a 10 km runner. So if you’re wanting to lose fat, why persist with steady state cardio?

Of course everyone is different, we’re all bio-individual and respond slightly differently to different training methods and nutrition plans, but generally if your goal is to reduce fat, from an exercise point of view consider these points:

  • If you’re an absolute beginner, steady state cardio is a great starting point to get your body used to exercising and get initial weight loss
  • Once you have base fitness, varied training and incorporating HIIT keeps your body guessing (adapting) and avoids the dreaded plateau
  • Resistance training will build muscle and increase metabolism
  • Add in yoga, tai chi or meditation to reduce chronic stress levels and switch off the fat-storing signals.

If you’re an endurance athlete, training for an event, or if you simply love, love, love cardio then by all means do steady state cardio.

But if you want fat loss, you may want to re-think your daily 45 minute jog.

Try including sprints (maybe lamppost to lamppost, or 30-60 seconds at a time) followed by a short recovery (30-60 seconds) and repeat until you’re exhausted (or 5-10 times). You could save yourself 20-30 minutes! Your body won’t know what’s HIIT it (sorry couldn’t resist….) and you can consider the time you save my gift to you.