5 Reasons The Cardio You’re Doing Isn’t Working!
Becki Siconolfi, BA, Metabolic Nutritionist, Body Sculpting Specialist
As soon as the snow starts melting, and we hit the very first 70 degree day, people freeze with this
thought: Oh my gosh, bathing suit season is almost here again. I ate way too much all winter. I’ve got to
get my diet and exercise schedule together and lose this winter fat ASAP!!!!
So, typically what happens next is they join a gym, start jogging outside, or the blow the dust off some
workout videos. They buy a FitBit to motivate them to move more, and they aim for 10,000 steps a day.
They start running longer, and farther, or add more time to pedaling the elliptical at the gym. They think: If
I can move more, I will lose weight! Calories in, calories out, and I am burning a ton.
A few weeks go by, and they aren’t losing any weight. In fact, some of their clothes are actually fitting
worse, and the needle on the scale hasn’t changed much.
Here are the top 4 reasons the cardio you are doing isn’t working.
1. You have adapted to it.
The human body is built for survival. It knows that when you perform some sort of task repeatedly, that
you “want” become more efficient at it. For example: climbing the stairs. If you have a flight of stairs in
your home, you often don’t think of it as a workout because they are just part of daily life. 10 daily trips up
the stairs (at least 10, maybe 30 if you have children) does not really equal a “workout” to your body
because it executes that movement all of the time.
Similarly, the human body will also adapt to any type of cardiovascular exercise that you perform in the
gym. Especially if you do it routinely, and have done it for a very long time. The heart will become
stronger, and more efficient. The skeletal muscles will also become stronger, and more efficient.
If you are an athlete, this is a great thing. If you are trying to lose weight, this is a bad thing.
All athletes want to become highly adapted to their sport of choice (runners, swimmers, cyclists, etc).
However, if you are a someone just looking to lose weight, this can become a bad thing in some ways.
Let’s say that you begin going to the gym, and begin a new cardio program on the elliptical. You plan to
pedal it for 20 minutes every time you go to the gym. At first, you lose weight. But then, suddenly, you
stop losing weight. So, you bump it to 30 minutes..then to 45 minutes…then 60 minutes…then you are
adding a second cardio session. Nothing is changing any more. You look the same. You may even look
worse. What happened?
One of the things that has happened is that your body has adapted to the movements of the elliptical.
Literally, everything about it: speed, resistance, time. Your body is so proud that it has “learned” the
movement so well, that it even begins to lower calorie expenditure. You start to burn less calories over
time because you have become so efficient at that movement. You’ve probably cut your calories too, and
your resting metabolic rate has also probably slowed (your body may think it is starving, so it has lowered
how quickly you burn calories to save your life because of all the arduous “work” you are doing every day.
Aka pedaling the elliptical).
I once knew a woman who used the same piece of gym equipment in her home every day for years.
Perhaps decades. She ate meticulously, but always looked exactly the same. What happened? Her body
2. You’re doing the wrong duration, and type of cardio.
There are two primary, traditional ways to do cardio: steady state (same speed for the whole session),
and interval style or HIIT (high intensity interval training).
You really can’t do excessive amounts of either type, and still plan to see results.
Just like medicine, steady state cardio has a specific prescription: too much cardio and you may start to
hold body fat (due to a cortisolic stress response), too little cardio and nothing changes.
It is the same thing with HIIT style training: too much HIIT and you become overtrained and injured, too
little HIIT and nothing changes.
So, what do you do?
I find with my clients that beginners do best with steady state cardio only in the beginning. They need
some time to build up endurance (and confidence). After some time has passed, then I introduce them to
gentle HIIT sessions, and then build them up to more intense HIIT paired with weight training sessions.
Overtime, I can sometimes drop the cardio completely because they have become so lean from weight
training properly, and eating their customized meal plan, that they don’t even need it anymore.
How does this happen? Let’s look at it this way…
What happens to your engine at the end of a long car trip? It doesn’t require a degree in automotive
engineering to know that once you’ve reached your destination, your car’s engine stays warm as it
gradually cools to a resting temperature.
The same thing happens to your body after exercise. Similar to how a car’s engine remains warm after
being turned off, once a workout is over and you’re back in your daily routine, your body’s metabolism can
continue to burn more calories then when at complete rest. This physiological effect is called excess postexercise
oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Also known as oxygen debt, EPOC is the amount of oxygen
required to restore your body to its normal, resting level of metabolic function (called homeostasis). It also
explains how your body can continue to burn calories long after you’ve finished your workout. (Pete
McCall, MS, CSCS).
Individuals who lift weights very hard, the correct way, can harness the EPOC effect just as easily as
someone who performs cardio correctly. Your body does not know the difference between walking on an
incline on the treadmill for 30 minutes, vs pushing the weights to the point of oxygen deficit. ! !
And, speaking of cortisol…
3. You’re creating a huge cortisolic stress response.
Most people have heard of what cortisol is (the stress hormone), and most people have assumed that it is
a terrible thing. Well, cortisol is not terrible, but excess amounts of it are definitely terrible.! !
What produces cortisol? It isn’t just exercise:
-relationships and friendships
So, you have to look at your stress load as a whole before adding a lot of stressful amounts of cardio. It
can sometimes make the stress to your body even worse. High levels of cortisol cause inflammation
(which can appear as weight gain on the scale), the “spare tire” weight gain effect, and many other
-Here are some signs your cortisol is too high:
-You experience backaches and headaches.
-You’re not sleeping well.
-Even when you sleep well, you’re still tired.
-You’re gaining weight, especially around the middle
-You catch colds and other infections easily.
-You crave unhealthy foods, because cortisol raises blood sugar
-Loss of libido
If any of these (or most of these) sound like you, then the worst thing you could do is add 45 minutes a
day on the elliptical. Instead, try going for walks outside to lower cortisol, and then looking at a new
program that includes weights and a proper cardio prescription.! !!4. You can’t out train a bad diet! !
One of the problems many gym goers (and runners, and swimmers especially) run into are excessive
appetites. For many years, people have believed that moving more, and burning more calories are the
key to weight loss.
However, over the past decade or so, one study after another has put chinks in that theory, and we’ve
learned that exercise alone—while it confers a plethora of important benefits—doesn’t much affect weight
loss. In fact, studies have shown that working out, by increasing the production of ghrelin, a hormone that
stimulates appetite, often makes you hungrier. Dr. Paul Gordon, associate professor and director of the
Laboratory for Physical Activity and Exercise Intervention Research at the University of Michigan, sums
up the current scientific consensus: “The average person who’s overweight is going to be hard-pressed to
expend enough energy and control diet sufficiently using exercise alone. For most people it’s not an
effective tool for weight loss.” (https://www.acefitness.org/prosourcearticle/3357/the-truth-about-exercis...
The problem is that hunger hormones (like ghrelin) exert very, very powerful effects on appetite. So
powerful, that they are difficult to overcome and ignore. Even those with the strongest willpower have
trouble overcoming it. Scientist’s found that swimmers seem to have the worst time with this (potentially
due to changes in water temperature vs air temperature), followed by runners, with cyclists being
somewhere in the middle (Dr. Enette Larson-Meyer, an associate professor in the human nutrition and
food program at the University of Wyoming). This is potentially one of the main reasons why people that
train for triathlons to lose weight, actually end up gaining weight.
With hunger hormones running rampant, people have no idea how to accurately gage how many calories
they need to eat to replenish their bodies from exercise. They usually just eat until they are full, and then
keep going because the feeling can be like having a bottomless pit to fill, and not a stomach. They will
often rationalize by saying they just “burned it off” or will “burn it off” in their next workout. But, this hardly
ever (actually, never) works.
One of my favorite examples of this is a video on YouTube by Turbulance Training. If you want to watch it
too, it is called “DIET vs EXERCISE Episode 1: Fat Loss Diet versus Best Cardio Workout to Burn Belly
Fat.” I highly recommend it.
Here is the what happens:
2 gentlemen are given two tasks: One man is given an entire box of pizza to eat, and the other man is
instructed to run on a treadmill while the first man eats it. The man on the treadmill hits top speeds, like
10.0 and above. They have determined that half of the pizza is worth about 900 calories. In about 3
minutes the treadmill runner burned about 40 calories, and the pizza eater consumed about 800-900
calories. They ended the experiment there because the treadmill runner couldn’t sustain that speed any
longer. The moral of the story? In 3 minutes anyone can eat 800 to 900 calories, and it is impossible to
burn them off in the same amount of time.
If you do the correct type of cardio, and manage your eating this will not happen! Remember, your
exercise dictates your appetite.
Remember when training for the summer: cardio is a like a prescription. Too little doesn’t help, and too