When you decided that it was time to lose weight, you probably relied heavily on cardio. Maybe you went to the gym and jumped on a stationary bike or elliptical machine. Perhaps you attempted to take up running but found that the aches and pains were too much to bear. Maybe you've even begun losing weight, but now you seem to be hitting a plateau or, worse, gaining back the weight. You're still putting in the effort, but you're not seeing the results you were looking for.
If this sounds like you, then you're not alone. Hundreds of people follow this same path each year, putting in work only to hit a plateau and then eventually regaining all the lost weight. So what could be going wrong? People often make the mistake of thinking that overweight people are simply lazy and unmotivated, but there are plenty who are getting up each day and earnestly putting in the work. They're watching what they eat and going to the gym several times a week but still aren't seeing the results they wanted to.
The problem is that many people are not following the correct equation for long-term weight loss success. They're trying their best, but they're missing a crucial component of the process. Sustainable weight loss, the holy grail of weight loss, requires more than just cardio. Studies have found that combining cardiovascular exercise with resistance training (a.k.a. weight or strength training) is the key to losing excess fat and keeping it off.
One recent study found that even after three years after the initial weight loss intervention, the group that performed both resistance training and high-intensity cardio intervals had been able to keep the fat off while the cardio-only and control groups did not. Combining cardio intervals with resistance training changed the participants' overall body composition, improving the hip-to-waist ratio and burning fat while preserving lean muscle.
The Problem With Too Much Cardio
Don't get me wrong. You can absolutely lose weight by doing a lot of cardio, especially if it's in the form of high-intensity interval training. The problem, however, is that you aren't just losing fat. Yes, the number on the scale is going down, but you're also losing muscle. Losing muscle is counter-productive in the long run because muscle mass is crucial for maintaining weight loss. Muscle mass increases your body's overall metabolic rate, allowing you to burn more calories while at rest.
If you lose too much muscle, your metabolism may slow down, making it harder to lose weight as time passes. When combined with the fact that most people eventually start eating more than they did during the initial weight loss phase, most people end up falling down a slippery slope towards gaining the weight back. Your body is also more likely to gain weight if you were previously overweight or obese. As Dr. Michael Greger explains in his book How Not To Diet,
Building and preserving muscle mass can help offset this predisposition for your fat cells to return to their enlarged state. Adding weight training to your fitness routine and consuming a nutrient-dense diet can help prevent muscle loss while allowing you to shed excess fat.
Weight Training Is For Everybody
While Instagram and other forms of social media are starting to highlight more unconventional lifters, weight training still carries this stereotype that's only for men. But like most stereotypes, it doesn't reflect the truth. Maintaining optimal health requires your muscles to be exercised. Exercising your muscles doesn't mean that you have to become a bodybuilder. But everyone, from children to the elderly, should be moving in ways that get the muscles pumping. Having lean muscle mass is vital for:
Resistance training is essential even if you aren't trying to lose weight. But sacrificing muscle to lose weight is also a surefire way to bring you further away from your weight loss goals and away from optimal health in general.
Don't Neglect Your Diet.
Even a well-planned cardio + resistance training regimen can't fight against a poor diet. If you're eating a Standard American Diet, it's going to be very difficult to lose weight, and even if you do, you're likely to gain it back along with some pretty undesirable health outcomes. Even modest changes to your diet can make a massive difference to your weight loss success. A whole-food, plant-based diet can help you lose weight while also improving your health by boosting your nutrient intake.
Niv Mullings is a Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness coach from the Bronx, New York, currently residing in Jacksonville, Florida. After years of struggling with obesity, anxiety, depression, painful menstruation, and other chronic health complaints, Niv changed her life for the better through fitness and a healthy plant-based diet. Now she helps others to do the same.