Why More Cardio Isn't Helping You to Lose Weight


Did you set a goal to lose weight this year, get a little bit overenthusiastic about it in January, and now find yourself stuck on a weight loss plateau?

That's so many people's story at this point in the year -- we all hit plateaus. And it is such a frustrating place to be. You're eating healthier than you ever have before, and you are doing more cardio than you ever imagined you could do -- but the scale isn't budging. 

Here's the deal: Doing more isn't always better. 

You may be thinking but Bridget... it's simple math: Calories in - Calories out = Weight loss. If I do more cardio, I should lose more weight. 

Sorry, but while that is true to an extent, it just doesn't always work that way. 

Your muscles and your body adapt to work more efficiently within your lifestyle. Now, if you were a hunter/gatherer, that'd be great. You could chase that animal down at the same speed with less effort. But for the person trying to lose weight, it kinda stinks. Your body gets used to what you're doing and adapts (i.e., does the same thing while burning less calories). So when you first start a fitness routine, it shocks your body and you lose a lot of weight quickly. Then your body adapts and things start to slow down. 

What then ends up happening is that you stop losing weight. And what's worse is that now you have to keep up that amount of cardio or you will start gaining.

Ideally, you want to be able to do as little cardio as possible while losing weight (because who has the time/joint health to constantly increase that?)

I don't want to leave you feeling hopeless. You can totally break that plateau. You just need to change things up a bit. Here are my tips for breaking a weight loss plateau:

1. Take a long, hard look at your diet

Diet is #1 for weight loss. Be mindful of what you eat. There is no magic "diet" that will fix all of your problems. You can gain or lose weight as a vegan. You can gain or lose weight while following a paleo diet. You can gain or lose weight doing intermittent fasting. 

I would recommend paying attention to the actual types of foods you are eating. Of course, I'm going to recommend that you eat whole, non-processed foods, but I'm also recommending that you eat a balanced amount of protein, carbs, fat, and fiber. You don't have to go full out If It Fits Your Macros. That's a little bit too obsessive/time-consuming for a lot of people. But just start becoming more aware of the types of foods you're eating. 

Here are some quick tips:

  • Drink more water (at least 90oz each day)
  • Try to eat at least 1g of protein per pound of body weight each day
  • Don't overdo it with carbs. Sweet potatoes and brown rice are great, but you don't need to eat 5 whole sweet potatoes every day. 
  • Incorporate more green veggies
  • Limit your fat intake to around 30-40g 
    • You shouldn't avoid fats completely. Your body needs them. But they add up quickly and are more calorie-dense than carbs/protein. Be aware of the amount of fat in salad dressings, peanut butter, avocados, etc. 
    • Avoid poly-saturated fats & trans fats

Not sure how many grams of protein/carbs/fats are in your normal diet? Try tracking your food in MyFitnessPal for a week or so, just to get a better idea of what your diet looks at a deeper level. 

2. Change up your workout routine

When your body seems to be getting used to your routine, change it up. It's good to change up your routine every month or so, just to keep your body guessing and the calories burning. If you've been doing a lot of steady-state running, try a kick boxing class or sprint intervals. If you've been lifting small weights for a lot of reps, try doing heavier weights for less reps. 

3. Lift weights

I'm serious. You aren't going to get bulky. You aren't going to get fat. I'm a pretty small person, but even if you think my muscle is more than what you would like, you should still lift weights. I have worked really hard for the past 3 years to build the muscle that I have. I'm very deliberate about it. It's not easy for most women to pack on muscle. 

So for those of you who want the "toned" or "lean muscle" look, you should still lift weights. Muscle is muscle. You build muscle by weight training, you reveal it by losing fat through diet/cardio. 

And you know what's especially awesome about muscle? It burns fat while you're sitting around. When your body has more muscle, you can burn calories all day long, not just while you're on the elliptical. 

This is really the best way to get long-term weight loss. A lot of the time, the reason people gain weight as they get older is because they start losing muscle. Keep the muscle you have, and build on it so that you don't have to spend 2 hours a day on the stinkin' elliptical machine for the rest of your life. 

4. Incorporate anaerobic cardio

Steady-state cardio is great for your cardiovascular health and your circulatory system, but anaerobic cardio is often better for fat loss. Depending on how many days you are currently doing steady-state, you can add HIIT/sprints or replace a steady-state day with a HIIT. 

5. Push yourself to move faster and increase strength

If it starts feeling easy to lift 5lb weights. Up your weights to 7.5 or 10lbs. If it starts feeling easy to run at a 10-minute-mile pace, try pushing yourself towards a 9-minute pace. Challenge yourself. 

6. Allow yourself rest days

Building muscle requires for your body to tear/repair muscles. You can't just constantly tear (work out). You have to allow yourself time to recover. Pay attention to your body -- your fatigue levels and your joint pains. Don't overdo it. Stress and lack of rest are bad for your metabolism. 

So take a deep breath, and calm down. Healthy living is not a 100-meter dash. It's a marathon. You're in this for the long haul. So keep that in mind. Protect your body. 

If you really want to move in some way on your rest days, try some restorative yoga!

7. Only do as much as you can maintain 

Crash/yo-yo diets are terrible for your metabolism. The more "diets" you go on, where you are crazy intense for a short period of time and then binge and stop working out afterwards, the more weight you will gain long-term. 

Figure out a routine that you can maintain. The easiest way to be a lean 40-year-old is to be a lean 20-year-old, and to maintain healthy habits the entire time. 

Where are you in your health/fitness journey? Are you crushing it? Are you feeling frustrated at a plateau?