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WHY Does the Myth that “CARDIO” burns fat still exist?

I don’t get it. As a physician, I know I should be up on the latest research on diet and exercise, I just assume that everyone else reads the latest information that is available all over social media, but apparently I am mistaken.

Over the past several months I have had some interesting conversations with folks, sometimes through email, but more often than not it’s on the listening end of one-sided conversations with individuals stating their beliefs regarding exercise.

While I cannot blame the 50-something woman who attends the same weighted Pilates class as I do when she says, “These workouts have me wearing a bikini again, can you imagine? I’m 57 years old and my friends are asking me how I got my body looking so great!” But then in the next breath she says, “I do this and then cardio 2-3 times per week to burn fat…”

And that is when I secretly lose it in my mind. “WHAT? You think it’s the cardio burning fat??”

I justify her misinformation by saying to myself ‘OK, so she is roughly my age and grew up with the “Jane Fonda” workout album, high impact aerobics, jazzercise… all of this then morphed into step aerobics to remove the impact and then spin classes, elliptical and other bizarre contraptions all developed to get the heart rate going. “

I do however, have an objection to those who we trust with both our bodies and pocket books. I recently had a conversation with the owner of a triathlete training center about cycling. He wanted me to spend $350 for a fitness assessment and eventually sell me a membership to his gym to help me “build lean muscle”. During our email debate, I informed him that I was going to focus on weight training rather than cycling, because cycling is catabolic (breaks down lean muscle). His reply, “It does not,” and emails me a picture of his legs…. So the conversation went back and forth… I finally realized that he was talking about cycling making your legs stronger and I was talking about building lean muscle.

I don’t debate that cycling will make your legs stronger, of course it does, but if you want to increase lean muscle mass, you need to perform isometric and isotonic exercises designed to cause micro tears in the muscles, allowing the muscle to heal and build new muscle fibers. This means, there needs to be significant resistance against the muscle to encourage muscle breakdown so it can begin the rebuilding process. Despite me reviewing muscle anatomy and physiology with him, he maintained his belief that I was wrong and he was right. After all, he used to ride for a professional cycling team.

What bothered me most about the interaction wasn’t the fact I had been working out longer than he has been alive and have most of a Master’s degree in exercise science [I did that after Medical School mainly as a hobby, so I didn’t bother to complete my degree]. Rather, that he is out there as an ‘expert’ with the general public looking to him for advice. In addition, he lacked an awareness of what could possibly be happening to my aging, postmenopausal body. With menopause, women, just like men, lose testosterone and lean muscle mass, ultimately lowering their basal metabolic rate and causing them to gain fat. Cycling is not going to increase my lean muscle mass – weight training is.. and even that may not even increase it enough without hormonal and nutritional enhancement.

Both of these examples outline what I hear almost daily in my practice, so I finally decided to sit down and write this blog to set the record straight [Well straight for our currently accepted understanding of muscle physiology]. “Cardio’” doesn’t burn fat” unless you are working out at the lowest end of your heart rate zone. “Cardio” can burn calories, but not as many as you think.”

Aerobic exercise (e.g. “cardio” = running, cycling, rowing, jogging, spin classes, elliptical, treadmill and even walking quickly) is good for the heart and lungs. It is a necessary component of being fit. In order to improve the strength of your heart and lungs you should perform any of the above exercises at an intensity that gets your heart rate into a specific range that has been determined to improve functioning.

A very simple calculation is as follows:

  • Calculate 60% of 220 minus your age and then 80% of 220 minus your age, and that is the range to perform your exercises.

For example, I am 55. So the lower end of my heart rate range is .6 x 165 or 99. The upper end is .8 X 165 = 132. For me, I need to do something aerobic that gets my heart pumping at a rate of between 99 to 132, but for how long?

The American Heart association recommends that we have at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days per week for a total of 75 minutes.
In other works, not as much as we think.

If you want to lose weight and keep it off, you need to build MORE muscle.

The more muscle you have, the higher your basal metabolic rate, thus, the more calories you can consume and burn. The only way you build muscle is performing isometric and isotonic exercises (as mentioned above).

Not to be ignored are flexibility and balance.

Flexibility is something greatly reduced with aging. We cannot perform many of life’s tasks without it, so flexibility training should be part of any workout plan. In my mind, the MOST important exercises that nobody talks about is balance training. As we age we lose balance very quickly, causing reduction in confidence and increased injury. More to come on this topic in future posts…

In summary, for all of you people out there spending 60-90 minutes on the treadmill and elliptical machine everyday, thinking you are “burning fat,” I’m sorry to say you are mistaken. You are not burning fat or getting lean by doing copious amounts of cardio. It just doesn’t work that way. Stop spinning your wheels and hit the weights or find a trainer to help design a weight resistance exercise regimen for you. Build muscle and you will increase your body’s ability to burn fat!! If you are still struggling, let us know… I’m sure we can help.

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595 Elm Place, Suite 208
Highland Park, IL 60035