The Cardio Conundrum: More Is Not Better, Better Is Better

The Cardio Conundrum: More Is Not Better, Better Is Better

Ivan Gavranic Ivan Gavranic · 01 Jun 2022

Training Intermediate
17 Mins

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Ever since I can remember, the advice for weight loss has always boiled down to some interpretation of “move more, eat less” or “calories in vs calories out”. 

No matter how you go about, you MUST be expending more calories than you are consuming over an extended period of time for you to lose weight. If this is not the case, then you are simply not following this principle whether you are aware of it or not.

It’s not uncommon to hear stories about people only eating 1000 calories per day, weight training 4 times a week, doing one hour of cardio each day along with hitting 15k steps per day but are still not losing weight. 

Is this a damaged metabolism? Has their body gone into starvation mode? Absolutely not. What is happening in these sorts of situations simply comes down to underreporting/inaccurate measurements of their energy intake.

Research has shown that we are generally just horrible at tracking our nutritional intake. Most nutritional surveys have found an 18-54% underestimation and most interestingly, even when people know the researchers can accurately assess their intake, they STILL underreport. The latter is far more common in obese individuals but it just demonstrates how hard it can be to track nutrition accurately, whether you are consciously or subconsciously underreporting. 

This is part of the reason why all of our members in RNT Pro fill in a check in sheet each day that allows them to reflect on how the day went with a heavy emphasis on nutritional adherence. We are very adamant on how important tracking and measuring food intake is during a fat loss phase as if you put in the work now for 6-12 months, you will then have the ability to eat intuitively forever as you have learnt what portions look like, what agrees with you, how you feel with certain foods, etc. 

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to stop measuring/weighing food after only commencing their journey for a couple of weeks and then end up scratching their head as to why they cannot lose weight. 

As soon as they resume weighing out their portions with precision, like magic, weight loss also resumes. 

Metabolic Misconceptions

If we go back to the above example of the person claiming they are not losing weight on such a low intake, it’s also quite common to hear that weight loss started happening again once they increased their intake. They “revved” up their slow metabolism with more food and now they are a fat burning machine, right? Wrong.

They are simply now adhering to their ACTUAL intake (which may be 1300 calories) every single day meaning they are now in an energy deficit. They may have been eating 1000 calories for 5 days of the week but not sharing the binge eating episodes on the weekend. 

This is another extremely common occurrence but in this situation, many can feel embarrassed or ashamed about their behaviour leading to not sharing it. In fact, research has shown that women who have body image concerns are more susceptible to underreport their dietary intake which can be directly linked to the aforementioned feelings.

Don’t Feel So Down!

This entire prologue isn’t meant to put a downer on your weight loss efforts and for what it’s worth, dietitians who help people manage their food intake for a living, also have been shown to underreport their calorie intake.

This study compared 10 female dietitians to 10 female non-dietitians and found that the dietitians underreported by 223 calories on average whereas the non-dietitians underreported their intake by 429 calories on average.

Knowing this, we can use this information to our advantage and realise that if we aren’t weighing/measuring our intake, we can be off by quite a margin so tightening the reins here should ALWAYS be the first point of action.

What About The “Calories Out” Part?

The segues nicely into the crux of what this article is all about which is the notion of “doing more” to “achieve more”. In many other areas of life, this idea can actually take people very far.

In academia, the more time you dedicate to studying, the better your grades are going to be.

In your career, the more time you can dedicate and invest into your craft, the more successful you will be.

When it comes to fat loss though, this approach doesn’t always pan out as expected as the law of diminishing returns sets in. 

Many erroneously assumed that energy expenditure was a linear or “additive” process. The more time you invest into burning calories, you get the same level of return for your efforts. If you expended 500 calories during your training bout, this amount is simply added to your total daily energy expenditure.

It wasn’t until 2015 that Herman Pontzer  published his own ideas of energy expenditure which represented a “constrained model” where the body will actually compensate for the energy expended during activity in other areas. This means that if you burn 500 calories through training, you may actually only net a total of 300 calories extra across the day as your body has reduced energy expenditure from other activities such as NEAT (non exercise activity thermogenesis) or BMR (basal metabolic rate).

A lot of his research has been extrapolated from hunter gatherer tribes such as the Hadza where the men and women have been shown to expend ~2500 and ~1900 calories per day respectively. This equates to roughly the average westerner, which initially shocked many people due to the fact that they are extremely active, with upwards of 15-20k steps every single day or 2 hours of extra “work”.

At face value, this does sound very hard to believe and it’s no surprise that many erroneously jumped to the conclusion that exercise is a waste of time when it comes to weight loss. How can a lean, active hunger gatherer who moves 3-4 times as much be expending the same energy as an overweight, inactive westerner? 

Well once you actually break down the facts, the numbers do make perfect sense. 

Firstly, it’s important to note that on average, the Hadza are very lean but carry less lean body mass and total weight than westerners (~30kg difference). This means they are smaller people in general leading to a lower resting metabolic rate and less energy expended for the same amount of time doing a certain activity. 

Let’s see how this pans out when comparing BMR, physical activity and another aspect of metabolism, TEF (Thermic Effect of Feeding).

BMR

Hadza- 60kg @ 10% BF- 1530 calories 
Westerner- 90kg @ 25% BF- 1820 calories

Activity

If the westerner walks 5000 steps per day, their energy expenditure goes up to ~2250 calories per day while the Hadza male must walk 15000 steps per day to match that same output. That is a massive difference!

TEF

Also, considering the Hadza consume ~2600 calories per day while the westerners consume ~3600 calories per day, they burn less calories digesting their food too. The thermic effect of feeding (TEF) roughly equates to 10% of the total energy intake meaning there is a 100 calorie difference in favour of the westerner.

So in total, the 90kg sedentary westerner who walks 5k steps per day and consumes 3600 calories per day expends MORE energy than the Hadza hunter gatherer who is 60kg, consumes 2600 calories per day and walks 15,000 steps.

Once you break things down, the results are actually not that surprising and don’t support Pontzer’s theory but when you start looking at the biomarkers of the Hadza, it’s where things do get quite interesting.

The males were found to have hypogonodal levels of testosterone with higher than normal levels of cortisol. This same metabolic profile can be found in physique athletes or bodybuilders when dieting for show and elite athletes.

“The results confirmed many suppositions such as basketball players being tall, weightlifters short and cross-country skiers light. The hormone profiles were more surprising with remarkably low testosterone and free T3 (tri-iodothyronine) in male powerlifters and high oestradiol, SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin) and prolactin in male track and field athletes. Low testosterone concentrations were seen in 25.4% of male elite competitors in 12 of the 15 sports and high testosterone concentrations in 4.8% of female elite athletes in 3 of the 8 sports tested.”


I have discussed the impact of how being too lean for long can in a previous article but within this context, this is the sort of hormonal profile that can come from chronic, very high activity levels which in turn are indicative of certain processes shutting down or “compensating” to accommodate the higher levels of exercise energy expenditure.

So Does This Mean Exercise Is Useless?

Unfortunately, this is where many mistakenly misinterpreted the theory to mean that all the energy that is expended during exercise is compensated for, meaning you may as well not exercise at all. 

If you burn 600 calories through a hard bout of endurance training, you may compensate by moving around less for the rest of the day or not giving as much energy to other tasks. You also may want to eat more as your appetite may have increased, leading to you not being in a deficit anymore. 

Unfortunately, this compensation can vary dramatically between individuals making it extremely difficult to give blanket recommendations. Everyone has their “sweet spot” when it comes to activity and research has shown that being more active does lead to better appetite regulation. 

This is why for most of our members, we initially recommend training with weights 3-4 times a week, walking 8-10k steps per day and maybe adding in 1 x 30 minute low intensity cardiovascular session (for health reasons more than anything). When paired with their nutritional strategy, this initial setup can take them extremely far as they are using nutrition to drive their fat loss, NOT activity. 

Also, most people do not have the time, resources or interest to be doing copious amounts of activity/exercise. I have spoken more about this here but we are always opting to make the most of the time our members have available vs telling them to “make the time”. 

Granted, you will have to make some changes to your schedule but if you’re doing hours of cardio and crazy amounts of steps each week and you’re not in the final few weeks of your fat loss phase, you are potentially wasting a lot of valuable energy.

Study after study after study demonstrates how exercise interventions in and of themselves are just not sufficient when it comes to weight loss. Energy intake will always remain the most important factor which is why the majority of efforts should be allocated towards making that as effective as possible with activity being something that is additional to what the individual can realistically adhere to.

Over time, it’s normal for more activity to be prescribed to keep progress going but most of the changes will be coming from nutritional interventions. Where high amounts of activity would be necessary are for smaller individuals (50kg or under) looking to continue losing body fat as dropping calories any lower may not be feasible. In this situation, activity levels will be ramped up but the member is well aware that it’s only for a brief period of time and is not something they will need to adhere to for the rest of their life.

It’s in these situations where we may see a lot of compensation but this is a completely normal process as anytime you’re trying to get to uber levels of leanness, the body will fight you. An important thing to remember though is that no matter how much your metabolism compensates or adapts, it will NEVER prevent weight loss from happening.

As an extreme example, let’s say you expend 800 calories from your training, cardio and step count for the day but your body compensates by down regulating metabolic processes by 300 calories. Over the course of the day, you still expended a net 500 calories meaning you are still in a deficit (if your nutrition is on point of course) meaning fat loss will continue to occur. 

We All Respond Differently To Activity

As mentioned above, the degree to which individuals compensate varies a lot and can be based on many factors such as age, gender, fitness, level of leanness, dieting history and genetics. 

When examining elite cyclists racing in the Tour de France, the amount of energy they expend is insane. Riders will typically burn about 4,000 kcal on an "easy" stage. Average stages require between 4,000 and 6,000 kcal. Gruelling mountain stages demand calorie burns of 7,000 kcal or more.

To get to that level, you must be extremely fit, extremely lean, on the younger side and have probably been involved with training your entire life. This sort of individual can tolerate a very high amount of exercise and benefit from it.

If we take an older woman in peri menopause who is overweight, not very active and has history of yo-yo dieting, adding a ton of activity is definitely going to impact her very differently. An intense interval training session would render her useless the entire day as she is just too fatigued to walk or do anything else along with ramping up her appetite. A horrible combination for someone looking to just drop some body fat.

This is why we recommend the bare minimum from an activity standpoint for women going through menopause while promoting more relaxing, enjoyable activities to manage stress. The hormonal profile of someone going through menopause is not suited for handling high amounts of training and unfortunately, many women are not aware of this and feel like they are failing when they don’t see the weight come off despite feeling like they are putting in so much effort.

What worked for you in your 20’s will not work for you in your 50’s, especially if you have not taken the time to work on your fitness your entire life. Being younger gives you the ability to handle more stress in general and even though metabolic rate does stay pretty consistent between the ages of 20-60, this doesn’t mean you can perform at the same level at both ends of the spectrum. If this were true, nobody would be retiring from sports until they were close to 60!

So What The Heck Do I Do With This Information?

If there is one thing you take away from this article, it would be this.

Your lack of results has far more to do with your nutritional strategy than anything else so invest the majority of your time in there and make sure you are actually eating the amount you are supposed to be eating for your goals.

Many are far too quick to add in extra cardio, more steps, more workouts, more yoga, more everything without understanding the potential cost of those activities. We would love everyone to be as active as possible but I know that is not realistic (nor necessary) for a lot of people which is why we want to arm you with the best tools possible to transform.

Nutrition, stress management, training with weights at least 3 times a week and just moving more through daily activity (not formal exercise) should be the cornerstone of any transformation. They are the “essentials” where anything else on top of that is a nice bonus.

If you have the time to add in some extra cardiovascular work that you really enjoy doing, doesn’t beat you up or excessively tank your recovery, then that is great. We just want you to know that it isn’t going to be the “make or break” component when the goal is fat loss so use it wisely.

Ivan GavranicIvan Gavranic

Ivan Gavranic is RNT’s Head of Applied Research, where his focus is on translating scientific research into real world practical applications for our members. As one of our leading coaches based in Australia, Ivan has lived and breathed transformation for over ten years, staying now at sub 6% body fat year round, he continues to focus on attaining calisthenic and gymnastic skills you only see in the movies!

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