In a previous Burn the Fat Blog post, titled 2 Secrets For Effortless Fat Loss, the first secret was that once your diet is in place, to help speed up fat loss even more, you don’t have to do “formal” cardio like on a machine in a gym, especially if you hate it and it’s like drudgery. You simply need to be more active all day long
I gave the example of a friend who never did cardio machines – he did 100% of his cardio outdoors on a mountain bike. He was arguably working hard, but it didn’t feel like work – he chose an activity that made physical activity feel fun.
So now, let’s take that idea one step further (another secret for effortless fat loss). WHAT IF your accumulated steps for the day could produce an equivalent or even greater amount of fat loss as hard “formal” cardio sessions?
Could a whole bunch of light, easy activity spread throughout the day, and maybe just some intentional walking, be just as good a fat burner?
More and more fitness experts are starting to ask this question, but it hasn’t caught on in the mainstream yet because most people have this idea burned into their brain that cardio must be hard and unpleasant or it doesn’t count.
For a while, high intensity interval training (HIIT) was thought to be some kind of cardio holy grail, and while it’s still popular, we now know that because these HIIT workouts are intense, they’re also short, so they don’t burn as many calories as you might think.
What about the “afterburn” effect? Yes, it’s real (it’s called “Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption or EPOC), but it’s also over stated (it takes long and moderately hard workouts to get much of an afterburn and even then, the majority of the calories burned are burned during the exercise session itself, not afterward).
Most people (outside of endurance athletes) can potentially burn far more calories just walking and moving around during the day than they likely ever will doing formal cardio sessions.
Activity that’s not “formal” cardio or intentional exercise is called Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis or NEAT.
This is a shocker to a lot of folks, but formal cardio usually doesn’t burn many calories unless your intensity is moderate to moderately high and the duration is long.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t do formal cardio. If I were to go into a fat loss phase today, I’d still be doing a lot of cardio. What I am saying is…
Don’t over-estimate the impact of a 30 or 60 minute cardio workout while under-estimating the additive impact of NEAT.
NEAT, all your walking and miscellaneous activity over the course of the whole day, is really the bigger part of the potential daily calorie burn for most people, if they practice an active lifestyle. If you have a physical job, your NEAT level can be exceptionally high.
While NEAT includes things like housecleaning, doing dishes, and even fidgeting, walking makes up the majority of your NEAT.
Now, if you’re not a mail carrier, construction worker, or professional dog walker, you may be thinking that NEAT will be too trivial to amount to anything. When you think about individual activities it might seem that way, but consider this:
All the movement you do all day long, especially the steps you take, can accumulate and add up to a number that becomes significant over 24 hours
A 30 to 60 minute formal cardio workout can give your step count a huge bump, but those aren’t the only steps that count.
In fact, suppose you blast a 40 minute session on the elliptical trainer. It really feels like you did something productive, and you probably did – unless you’re then totally sedentary and chair-bound the entire rest of the day. Then you can still actually have a surprisingly low total calorie expenditure for the whole day.
Some of the body movements and activities that contribute to NEAT are unconscious. But you have a great deal of control over your activity level. And if you use a fitness tracker that counts steps, it’s an extremely effective reminder to move.
A step tracker (pedometer) like a Fitbit is like an accountability best friend.
If you consciously focus on moving more all day long, in little bits here and there, you can often crank up your 24-hour calorie burn to a whole new level that will help you stay a whole lot leaner.
The best part of using this strategy is that it can feel almost effortless. Here’s why:
More and more experts today are suggesting that if you can maintain a high step count while at the same time lifting weights diligently and keeping your diet dialed in, it’s possible to reach most fat loss and body transformation goals with no traditional cardio at all.
You may hardly even notice the short bouts of walking and little activities here and there because you never get out of breath or work up a sweat.
NEAT counts a lot toward your total daily calorie burn, but it doesn’t feel like hard work.
Are there reasons to do more intense cardio that gets your heart rate up? Yes of course. You could think about three distinct benefits of cardio:
1. Burning calories to help with weight loss and weight loss maintenance.
3. Fitness and physical conditioning.
The more intense types of cardio produce fitness benefits that low intensity activity or walking can’t. This is one reason I like to always include at least a little bit of intense cardio every week – for maximum cardiovascular fitness. (I like to run up and down hills). Plus, intense cardio can produce impressive health benefits in the least amount of time. That’s important for busy people to know.
People who don’t have a lot of time need to nail their nutrition for fat loss, and use short weight training sessions (such as superset training) and short intense cardio sessions.
But if you have the time to simply walk more and to substitute sedentary time for active time in little ways all day long, experts today are starting to agree that you can get lean and stay lean with little or no formal cardio. This appeals a lot to people who physically can’t or simply don’t like high intensity exercise.
This past week I heard a well-known bodybuilding coach suggest that it’s an option to focus on total daily step count instead of formal, harder cardio. He was a competitor himself, a big dude at 240 lbs, and he said he aims for 12,000 to 14,000 steps a day when he’s cutting. That’s a lot of steps by any standard. He said he does no formal cardio, unless you call taking walks cardio.
But he lifts 6 days a week and he also does martial arts a few times a week. He’s very active. Think about it, if you could hit a step count that high and lifted almost daily and had your nutrition dialed in, how much cardio should you need on top of that?
Now, before I get deluged with comments and emails accusing me of completely flip flopping in my position on cardio, I have NOT. I have simply expanded my view of the possible activity options.
The old paradigm was that exercise included weights and cardio. There’s a new paradigm for exercise and calorie burning today that looks like this:
- Resistance training
- Formal cardio training
- NEAT / total step count (all daily activity out side of formal training)
I have always been and still am in favor of being highly active when you want to get leaner and stay lean in a healthy way.
I’m also in favor of doing whatever cardio or physical activity you enjoy doing which you can sustain. Whether it’s formal cardio, cycling, walking, or random daily activity, the important point is that ALL ACTIVITY COUNTS! All that activity adds up and increases your total daily calorie burn.
A good question is, how much is enough and how do your activity numbers stack up?
In my recent blog post about whether 10,000 steps a day is really a good goal, I mentioned the hierarchy of stepping (which comes from peer reviewed research, not the fitness tracker industry). These numbers give us some great benchmarks.
1. 5,000 steps per day or less (sedentary).
2. 5,000 – 7,499 steps per day (low active)
3. 7,500 – 9,999 steps per day (somewhat active)
4. 10,000 – 12,499 steps per day (active)
5. 12,500 steps per day or more (highly active).
The major point I want to emphasize is, the more steps you accumulate in the day from walking and NEAT, the less formal cardio you have to do.
I would also say it’s fair to call intentional bouts of brisk prolonged walking as “formal cardio” and count them as such. It’s simply low intensity cardio.
If you’re “highly active” or even higher just from walking and NEAT, then why would you need an additional hour on a stepmill or elliptical every day? Low intensity physical activity counts.
You also shouldn’t feel an obligation to do any high intensity cardio unless you have a need for time efficiency, you want maximum conditioning, and or you enjoy the intense work. In that case, do it! Do more of the exercise you find fun, but still try to keep your step count up.
There’s been a common misconception for years that if an activity isn’t high in intensity, if you’re not sweating buckets, if your heart is not pounding, if you’re not gasping for air, then it’s it’s not “real” exercise. Some would even say it’s worthless. This attitude is changing.
It’s not that you shouldn’t do formal cardio or HIIT or hard steady state cardio, we’re simply suggesting that you have options. Judging your activity level based on steps rather than minutes of formal cardio or calories burned from formal cardio is one of those options. Doing a mix of hard, moderate and light exercise or a mix of formal cardio and increased daily steps is another.
This is one of the many reasons that for years, I’ve been sponsoring fitness contests that challenge you to increase your step count every day.
The Burn The Fat 1 Million Step Challenge (100 Days Of High-Stepping!)
The next step challenge is starting on Monday, August 29th 2022, and I’d like to invite you to join us.
This could make a huge difference in your health and it’s also a great way to meet awesome like-minded people in our Burn the Fat community. Plus, you could win great prizes like a Fitbit Charge or new shoes. Visit the page below for all the details:
Train hard and expect success,
-Tom Venuto, Author of, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM)
Author of, The BFFM Guide To Flexible Meal Planning For Fat Loss
Founder of, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
About Tom Venuto, The No-BS Fat Loss Coach
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 55,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details