Cardio Burns Fat But This Is How to Do it Efficiently
Our content strives to support, inform, and motivate you to meet your health goals. We want to be your trusted source of expert- and science-backed info dispensed in simple, actionable ways. Read our Editorial Guidelines.
Does cardio burn fat? The short answer is — yes! Cardio burns fat.
There’s a catch, though. The effort at which you perform cardio and how long you maintain it will determine how much fat you burn.
This article focuses on the fat-burning potential of cardio and provides insights into how you can optimize fat burning. Hint: This includes some non-cardio to-dos.
I talked to certified personal trainers who train clients through the Kickoff app Carmen Pichon and Joshua Whalen about optimal fat-burning workouts, combed through lots of peer-reviewed scientific research, and drew on my own personal experience as a quadruple-certified fitness instructor to uncover what you can do to burn more fat.
First — Let’s Talk About Fat
What Is Fat and Where Does it Come From?
Body fat is created when you consume more calories than your body burns. The excess energy is stored as fat. In order to torch that excess fat, you have to burn through the sugar in your bloodstream and the glycogen (sugar) stored in your muscles and liver before you can tap into your fat stores.
We need a certain amount of body fat to function. It protects our vital organs, keeps us warm, and our fat cells produce leptin, a hormone that reduces appetite. But, excess body fat can lead to chronic diseases, poor self-esteem, decline in reproductive health, and struggles with athletic performance.
Our bodies can’t create essential fatty acids; we consume those from food. Essential fatty acids help us absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), so drizzle dressing made with olive, avocado, or sunflower oil on your salad.
Unsaturated fats found in avocados, eggs, nuts, seeds, and extra-virgin olive oil may protect against cardiovascular disease. Omega-3 fatty acids can improve your cardiovascular, brain, and mental health so get your fill from fatty fish, shrimp, algae, seaweed, walnuts, and chia, hemp, and flax seeds. Saturated fat received a bad rap for many years, but more recent reviews of the research found no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease.
Avoid the omega-6 and trans fats found in processed food, baked goods, and fried foods. Crunching too many cheetos and other highly processed foods is associated with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
How Do We Burn Body Fat?
Your metabolism plays a huge role in your ability to burn fat. It’s the process of converting what you eat and drink into energy. During this process, the calories you consume are combined with oxygen to release the energy needed for your body to function. Fat metabolism is regulated by your nutrition, metabolism, and hormones — this trifecta determines how much body fat you accumulate and how much you can mobilize from stores to be used as an energy source.
The energy your body requires to carry out necessary daily functions is called your BMR (basal metabolic rate). Your BMR is unique and based on your body composition and size, gender, and age.
While you don’t have full control over the speed of your metabolism, you do have control over your daily activity levels and diet. Let’s dig into activity first.
Cardio for Fat Loss
Does Cardio Burn a lot of Calories?
Cardio burns fat and energy (calories), but duration and intensity matter. One study suggests that maximal fat oxidation happens at 54% of max effort.
In order to access fat, you have to burn through the sugar in your bloodstream and glycogen stored in your muscles and liver first. If you’re jogging or cycling at a moderate pace, it takes from 30 to 90 minutes for your body to start burning fat (depending on how fueled you are when you start exercising).
HIIT it Baby One More Time
Pichon’s and Whalen’s favorite fat-blasting cardio: HIIT workouts, which alternate short bursts of high-intensity and often high-impact activity (jumping jacks, jump squats, push-ups, sprints, etc.) with short periods of recovery.
If you’re crunched for time and are physiologically able to handle more intensity (and impact), research shows that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) signals hormones to release fat from storage in less time than the 30- to 90-minute window for moderate cardio efforts. Even better: HIIT revs your fat metabolism, so you’ll keep burning fat as your body recovers from the effort.
You can apply the principles of HIIT to almost any workout to make it a more effective fat burner. If you’re a runner, sprint for short intervals, and recover at a slower jogging pace. If you’re a swimmer, do the butterfly or your fastest crawl for a lap or two, and recover with a slower breaststroke.
As an indoor cycling coach, I like to incorporate HIIT into my classes by pushing clients to sprint at faster bpms with resistance for short intervals (eight seconds to one to two minutes), paired with slower recovery intervals. In my experience as a health and fitness professional, HIIT workouts are the most effective cardio workouts for burning the most calories and fat.
Cardio + Strength Training to Burn Fat
While you can burn fat by doing longer bouts of moderate-intensity cardio or HIIT training alone, the most effective way to burn fat is to combine cardio with strength training. Strength training builds muscle, which helps you burn more calories and fat each day.
“A 50/50 combination of cardio and strength training is the best way to burn fat through exercise, says Whalen. “Cardio burns lots of calories, but strength training is the key to increasing your metabolism by building muscle.”
Pichon agrees: “You need resistance training with cardio, so you continue to burn fat even after you stop working out.”
EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, refers to the way your metabolism remains elevated after you finish a workout. A review of several studies suggests that EPOC lasting from three to 24 hours requires working for 50 minutes or more at 70% max effort or, for six minutes or more at 105% max effort.
Combine HIIT cardio intervals with strength training to save time and ensure you work hard enough to reap the EPOC benefits. Look for workouts called strength and conditioning, circuit training, bootcamp, cardio-strength hybrid classes, Orangetheory, and CrossFit. Be wary if you’re a beginner or new to this style of training: It’s tough and you might need to take longer rest intervals, lift a little lighter, and even modify certain moves to avoid possible injury. Give yourself plenty of time to recover after these short but intense efforts.
The overall takeaway: Cardio plus strength training is the key to burning fat.
If your goal is to lose fat in a specific area, you can’t really target fat loss. You can target tone, or choose targeted exercises to tone specific areas of your body. You’ll still need to burn excess body fat in order to look leaner and be able to see muscle definition, so a combination of lifestyle changes (diet, sleep, stress management) and the right exercise will help.
Combine HIIT with targeted toning strength moves to shape an area of your body. If your goal is to lose belly fat, choose abdominal strength training exercises like bicycles and planks. If you want toned arms, do weighted shoulder presses, tricep kickbacks, and bodyweight push-ups.
Train to Burn Fat
To burn fat fast, do 20- to 30-minute HIIT workouts three times a week, and 30- to 60-minute strength training workouts three times a week. Or, combine the two into 30- to 45-minute strength and conditioning workouts three times a week.
You’ll start to notice a difference in two weeks. In six weeks, you’ll see a significant difference in your overall shape. I always remind my clients that progress is measured in inches, not in pounds. Take upper arm, waist, hip, and thigh measurements every week while you’re trying to burn fat, so you can track your progress.
Don’t Forget About Diet and Sleep
Cardio plus strength will definitely burn fat, but you’ll burn fat most effectively if you follow a clean diet: avoid processed foods, cut back on sugar and alcohol, and get plenty of leafy greens and protein. Don’t fall for fad diets. They might help you drop pounds initially, but they’re not effective at keeping weight off long term. Adjust your diet slowly, so the changes are sustainable.
On top of cardio, strength, and a clean diet, make sure you get plenty of sleep and stay hydrated. According to the National Library of Medicine, 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. We often mistake the sensation of thirst for hunger. So, before you reach for a snack, drink a full glass of water to see if it curbs your appetite. It’s always a good idea to drink a glass of water before each meal to avoid overeating, and you should always have water on hand while you’re working out.
Cardio burns fat, but to burn fat most efficiently, do a mix of both cardio and strength training. Switch to a whole-food diet, get good sleep, and stay hydrated to burn fat fast and keep it off once it’s gone.