“I have lost 40 pounds over the last year and a half or so. I lost weight by reducing calories and eating less junk. When I started dieting, I also started walking to and from work and after a couple months bought an elliptical machine for my house. I started doing ten minutes at a time and now for the past three months I’m doing 30 minutes three times a week and I still walk to work. The thing is I stopped losing weight about two months ago. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the weight I lost but I still have more weight to lose (I’m 5’3” and 160 pounds.) I’m eating about 1600 calories a day and if I go too far below that there’s no way I’ll be able to stick to it. So my question is how much more cardio do I need to do to lose that last twenty pounds to get to my goal weight? I don’t have too much more time in my week to exercise. Should I just accept that I’ll always be chubby and just be happy that at least I’m better off now than I was before?” – Adria S., Edison, NJ
Congratulations, Adria, not only on your success in losing weight but in doing it the right way. You lost weight at a healthy pace (experts recommend that those who need to lose weight do so at a pace of 0.5-2 pounds per week). You didn’t choose a quick-fix unhealthy, fad diet, in which you deprive your body of key nutrients (as with the Atkins Diet) but rather used the tried and true method of burning more calories than you take in. Even the way you incorporated exercise into your fitness program was smart; you started with what your body was able to handle initially and progressed the duration of your workouts as you became more fit. Bravo on all counts on what you have done so far.
What you are describing in hitting a plateau with your current routine is a classic case of body adaptation. Your body is an incredibly efficient and versatile machine. When you started exercising you started bombarding your body with stress (but a good stress)that it was unaccustomed to handling. You saw results because your body started adapting, rebuilding itself so that, when faced with that same level of stress again, it would be able to handle it.
As you started adding more time, the body continued evolving to prepare itself for your next walk to work or elliptical session. The thing is as your body adapts it becomes more efficient in the way it expends energy to perform a task it once found grueling. Assuming you take the same route and maintain more or less the same pace on your walks to and from work, after a few weeks your body won’t have to expend as much energy to travel the same distance at the same pace, so you won’t be burning as many calories as you did the first time you did it. This doesn't mean you should cut your walks to work. You may not burning as many calories as possible but your body was made to move and the more it moves, the better.
The antidote to overcoming your plateau is to change it up and increase the intensity of your workout program.
The good news is that, even if you are pressed for time, you can still take it up a notch with your exercise program and burn more calories without taking your caloric intake to an unsustainable level. Here’s how you should spend the time you’re currently spending on the elliptical. You can cut back to 10-minute sessions on the elliptical. Less time on the elliptical? Score! Yes, less time on the machine but your time on it needs to suck more. Spend two minutes warming up, spend minute three gently increasing resistance and at the end of that minute, haul ass at a moderately challenging resistance setting for a whole minute, and then fill out the remaining ten minutes increasing and decreasing the intensity and speed of your run. Working with intense intervals for abbreviated periods of time will improve your cardiovascular conditioning and endurance more than doing moderate traditional cardio over a longer period of time and you will burn more calories in less time working this way.
But… Cardio alone isn’t going to solve your problem.
The answer to “how much cardio should you be doing?” is actually…
You should lift weights.
You mentioned the word “chubby,” which is a subjective term. (“Chubby” is in the eye of the beholder, after all.) Chubby isn’t categorized by a number on the scale but by your body composition. Resistance or strength training is the only way you are going to do that.
You could start building strength with body weight exercises such as push-ups, unweighted squats and lunges or triceps dips using a chair, etc. Or you can also purchase resistance bands, which are inexpensive, travel well and don’t take up too much space in your home. But if you really want to significantly change your body, you need to start lifting weights.
If you are concerned that weight training will make you “bulky” or that you’ll instantly transform into The Incredible Hulk, consider the following: muscle is more dense than fat so you can squeeze 5 pounds of muscle into a smaller space than 5 pounds of fat. Muscle makes your body appear tighter. The secret to getting into the skinny jeans you haven’t been able to wear since college doesn’t lie in a number on the scale, it might just be in doing some barbell squats and deadlifts.
Putting some lean muscle on your frame will also raise your metabolism when you aren’t exercising and will allow you to consume more calories eventually (assuming they are the right kinds of calories, of course).
There are also aerobic benefits to weight training. You will elevate your heart rate as you struggle through sets of biceps curls or bench presses or any other weight-bearing exercise.
And you will be burning calories—more calories in a shorter period of time than if you were doing steady state cardio.
I am excited for where your fitness program is headed, Adria. It’s going to be hard work but you can do it.
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