Everyday at the gym, I see dozens of people pounding away on the treadmills and cardio machines, attending every group aerobics class there is and frankly, they look the same to me, day after day. I've had women tell me countless times about how they did cardio or a certain class consistently and after some initial progress, nothing else seemed to happen. Recently, I even heard a lady say that she attended every group aerobics class, daily for a whole year straight and made no progress. I personally observed a large, obese man attend at least 2-4 hours of group aerobics classes, every day for three years, at the gym I used to go to in Columbus. He didn't look any different to me at the end of three years.
How can this be? Aren't you eating too much and not exercising enough? Don't all of the mainstream weight loss gurus tell you to eat less and exercise more? Isn't walking for at least 30minutes a day, a common recommendation for those embarking on a weight loss journey? You have been lied to my friends. And the liars are making billions of dollars a year keeping you eating like a bird, hitting the treadmills, taking the secret fat burner pills, buying all sorts of get skinny over night gizmos and potions.
The answer lies in the facts and not in the common myths (sales ads) that you hear everyday.
Steady state cardio is beneficial for cardio endurance. Running 5 miles a day makes you efficient at running 5 miles a day. Your joints may not appreciate it in the long term though. There are hormonal effects in your body from everything that you do - some good and some bad depending on what your doing.
Excessive steady state cardio causes your cortisol levels to rise, makes you efficient at the type of cardio that you do, which burns less calories each time, as you become more efficient at that type of cardio, puts you in a catabolic state which burns lean tissue, stresses your joints and skeletal frame, and burns very little fat. You also become efficient at preserving glucose and burning fat which means that your body burns less and less as it gets better and better at it.
I have been a certified endurance sports trainer since 1997. I have participated in most forms of cardio training and events to a fairly extreme level for over twenty years. I have done my share of running, biking, swimming, hiking / ruck marching and have spent many hours on all of the cardio machines. I have even participated in more than one aerobics class in my time. Despite all of the steady state, long distance / duration cardio training that I have done, I never leaned up or lost bodyfat. Many times I got fatter. I have been embarrassed more than once by a fat guy beating me on a run. Yes, fat guys run marathons and yes, the fat guy stays fat. I've seen it.
A study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition (8(3): 213-222, 1998) showed that 5 days a week of 45 min aerobic training for 12 weeks had no effect on body composition over dieting alone.
Research (Jones et al., Sports Med. 18(3): 202-214, 1994) has shown that the intensity required by the average sedentary person trying to improve their cardiovascular system will likely create an excessive structural overload – in fact in this study there was a 50-90% injury rate in the initial six weeks of training.
Does steady state cardio actually work for some people? Yes, it does and if it works for you, then rock on with what your doing. There are many competitors who use it to supplement their weight training with the cutting phase of training. For the average jane or joe, you might make initial progress but more than likely it will rapidly fade.
The key behind the positive or negative effects of steady state or any other type of cardio is always the nutrition plan. If you are not eating the right amount and types of food frequently enough, you will rarely ever make any fat loss progress. Not eating enough, speeds the catabolic and hormonal effects, that cause fat sparing / storage and lean tissue loss. You don't want to walk on a treadmill or stairmaster for an hour or two a day and end up skinny fat.
So what does work? As I always say, strength and metabolic resistance training ( Tabata Protocol ), targeted fat loss cardio, high intensity interval training and proper nutrition are the keys to building muscle and burning fat. It's the 99.99% solution for most people.