Calorie Deficit And Cardio: HIIT, low intensity, or none?


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 220 million Americans are active, and one every fifth is working out on a daily basis. But how should you plan to work out when you’re on a calorie deficit? In this article I will explain everything there is to know about calorie deficit and cardio, and does it help with your goals.

In general, doing cardio does help with a calorie deficit because it can burn extra calories, lower your stress levels, suppress appetite, and help you sleep better at night. On the other hand, doing excessive cardio can lead to fatigue and overeating.

It will also depend on your calorie intake per day, what are your training goals, and how long you plan to stay in the calorie deficit.

You Can Burn Extra Calories

Doing daily steady-state cardio, or even 2-3 days of HIIT training, while you’re on a calorie deficit, can significantly speed up the results. You can burn between 300 to 500 extra calories by doing some of the most basic exercises like walking, playing ball, or cycling.

However, you need to remember there is a big difference with your energy levels when you’re in the calorie deficit, calorie maintenance, and calorie surplus. In general, you have more energy when you eat more food.

So going on a run when you eat as usual, may feel like a invigorating activity. Or doing HIIT class or bootcamp class.

But once you reduce your calories, your energy to perform the cardio drops. So if something seems to energize you before, like running or doing a Tabata workout, now when you’re eating less it may feel much harder.

The longer you’re on a calorie deficit, the less and less energy you have to perform at your peak level. So it all depends on your goal.

Here you can see the examples of how to adjust cardio to each specific goal while being in a calorie deficit.

GoalLow intensityHIIT
Reduce Body Fat40 min x 7 days20 min x 2 days
Maintain Weight30 min x 5 days20 min x 3 days
Gain Lean Mass30 min x 7 days30 min x 2 days
Improve Overall Health45 min x 5 days30 min x 2 days
Improve Athletic Performance30 min x 4 days30 min x 5 days
Have More Energy30 min x 7 days30 min x 2 days
Run Faster or Longer60 min x 5 days20 min x 1 days

As a general rule, the more calorie restriction you have, the less intensity you want to do. Doing a high volume of HIIT while being in a calorie deficit in the short term will make you stronger, but in the long term, you will feel drained, tired, and more likely to overeat.

So it really depends of your goals.

Remember that your goals may change. That is also normal. Now you may want to reduce excess weight. But in the next 6 months, you may want to get stronger to prepare for a 15 days Annapurna hike in Nepal.

TIP: For fat loss, lowering the number of HIIT per week and increasing the number of low intensity is more sustainable.

Also, remember that low intensity doesn’t mean you need to stick to boring treadmills and ellipticals. Some people may have movement limitations due to illness or injury. There are multiple things you can do that keep you busy and burn calories.

So if you don’t enjoy spending your time doing those, you have hundreds of options.

Here are some of the uncommon cardio exercises that you can do on a daily basis and the number of calories that they burn per hour.

ExerciseKcalExerciseKcal
Backpacking493Lacrosse 563
Badminton317Moving lawn387
Bicycling422Painting317
Bowling 211Racquetball493
Cleaning317Running563
Cooking176Scrubbing floor387
Dancing317Shoveling snow422
Fishing141Skating493
Gardening352Snorkeling352
Kayaking 352Softball350

So as you can see, being active in general can mean simply moving around. It really adds up to your daily energy expenditure, without necessarily stepping your foot in the gym.

Imagine that you spend few minutes per day doing at least some of those activities.

  • 10 minutes cleaning (55 kcal)
  • 30 minutes walking (130 kcal)
  • 30 minutes cooking (85 kcal)
  • 15 minutes sweeping garage (70 kcal)

All of a sudden you have 300 – 400 kcal without even trying. That is why is so important to just keep moving.

You Have Less Stress

Doing cardio and calorie deficit together can not only enhance the process by burning off few extra calories but also in a more psychological way. Steady-state cardio like walking, cycling, or hiking reduces stress, lowers cortisol, and kick-start the parasympathetic nervous system.

When you’re in a deficit, you may think that going low with your calories is the best way to see results. However, you need to remember that with fewer calories, your body will respond with more stress.

That’s why I doubt you need to be burning as many calories as possible. In fact, the more energy deficit you create, the more likely you will to break down and binge (source).

That is exactly what happens to me. When I diet, I immediatly become:

  • grumpy
  • impatient
  • snappy

And even the smallest things start to irritate me. That is absolutely normal and it happens because the body adapts to calorie restriction.

Here are some of the quotes from published studies that looked at correlation from physical activity and stress:

Regular exercise is closely related to stress and the improvement of stress coping abilities

Edwards, 2006

Behavioral interventions such as physical activity reduce the burden of chronic stress

 McEwen, 2007

This means that people who exercise even 2 or 3 times a week can have a lower level of stress compared to those who don’t. But how exactly cardio impacts our psychological health?

  • Aerobic exercise reduces the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
  • Steady-state and HIIT cardio elevates endorphin concentration and impacts our mood and perception of well-being.
  • Regular physical activity, when applied with proper dose (duration, intensity, frequency) significantly improves pain (source).
  • Regular cardio is proven to improves emotional resilience.

And with less stress, chances are you not gonna experience an unwanted emotional outbreak and end up elbow deep scraping the bottom of the cookie jar.

So when you’re in a calorie deficit, your goal is to look at cardio more of a “stress reduction therapy”. This will help you relax, stay calm during the setbacks, and stay in control of your willpower.

TIP: People usually overeat during the calorie deficit because of a stressful situation that happened and triggered them to eat. Regulating your stress with exercise can make you bulletproof from many unexpected events.

Apart from cardio, you can also use other methods to control stress levels. Here are some of the most scientifically studied and proven ways to reduce stress while dieting:

MeditationIntimate relationship
Time in natureMindfulness
Ongoing learningWork-life balance
Fun activitiesSocial connection
Regular sleepFulfilling activities
Meaningful workJoy and pleasure

So you can use any of those methods to stay in control, build you iron willpower and maintain your calorie deficit until you reach your desired weight.

Does Cardio Suppress Appetite?

As a general rule, regular exercise impacts weight reduction partially because of appetite regulation. Short-term cardio workouts influence appetite-related hormone responses that lead to temporary hunger suppression and lower energy intake.

When doing a calorie deficit, the last thing you want is to feel hungry all day long. In general, you will feel hunger at some point.

But with regular cardio and other techniques that I will show you, you can significantly lower hunger perception and stay on track.

I’ve noticed that myself when I’m doing intermittent fasting.

Normally around noontime, my body starts to feel like eating. But once I have a coffee (which is also considered an appetite suppressant) and a short duration workout, all my hunger goes away.

This way I can easily move up my mealtime later on during the day, without constantly thinking about the food. The good news is that the workout doesn’t have to be somewhat long and intense.

Here are some of my favorite hunger lowering exercises I do when cutting.

ExerciseTime
Ashtanga yoga 20 minutes
Kettlebell training45 minutes
Walking30 minutes
T2525 minutes
Jogging30 minutes

You can of course use anything that you can fit into your schedule. If you’re working in the office, or in any location where you don’t have an access to the workout facility, simply divide your lunch hour into two sections.

  • 30 minutes walking
  • 30 minutes eating

You will be surprised how much of an impact a simple walk can have on your hunger levels. And if you can do that regularly, not only you will feel less hungry but also you will burn more calories.

You may feel like 30 minutes is not enough. But what if you would do it for the next 12 months? Let me show you how 30 minutes of walking per day looks like in the perspective of 365 days.

Walking 30 minutesKcalWeight loss
1 day120 0.03 lbs
7 days 8400.25 lbs
30 days3,6001.02 lbs
90 days10,8003.08 lbs
180 days21,6006,17 lbs
270 days32,4009.25 lbs
365 days43,80012,5 lbs

If you walk 30 minutes per day before your lunchtime, not only it will lower your appetite, but also you can lose 12,5 lbs extra in the next year, on top of your calorie deficit.

And imagine what if you walk for 45 minutes or 60 minutes per day? This will make an interesting addition to your goals and make a significant difference in the end.

TIP: By far the best way to lower appetite is to spend at least 20 minutes for eating your meal.

Here are some other ways to suppress your appetite while dieting:

  • Eat plenty of protein
  • Put your fork down between each bite
  • Chew your food longer than usually
  • Eat high-fiber foods
  • Chew chewing gum throughout the day
  • Drink coffee and other zero-calorie beverages

How Much Cardio Is Too Much When Cutting?

In general, doing 5-7 days a week of HIIT cardio when cutting is too much. During a calorie deficit, the levels of cortisol are already elevated, and doing more high-intensity cardio can make you feel fatigued, burned out, and feeling more hungry for food.

However.

Doing 5-7 days a week of low-intensity cardio when doing calorie restriction can help you reduce cortisol and add extra few calories burned. Switching from HIIT to light-intensity will make you feel more energized, less tired and less inclined to overeat.

So should you do more cardio when cutting? It depends.

In the end, it’s all matter of a preference. I have plenty of clients who seen exercise from a totally different point of view:

  • Some people like to “feel” their workout and get a good sweat.
  • Some prefer to be out of breath.
  • Others are focused on the performance.
  • And others just like to feel stronger from heavy lifts.

So it really depends of individual preferences.

We haven’t talked about weight training, which is also an important part of any calorie deficit. Check out my article on a calorie deficit and lifting weights if you want to learn more about it.

So, the verdict.

Should I do Cardio while on a Calorie Deficit?

You should do cardio on a calorie deficit because it helps you with sustainability. Doing daily low-intensity and 1-2 times per week HIIT can boost your energy, lower your appetite, improve your regularity, helps you with sleep, lower the stress and burn extra calories.

Can You Create a Calorie Deficit with Cardio?

You can create a calorie deficit with cardio because negative energy balance can happen by either reducing calorie intake or by increasing daily energy expenditure. For sedentary people, physical activity makes up 10-15% of daily energy demand, and 30% for physically active people.

Conclusion

In summary, doing cardio while cutting is a robust and easy way to manage the discomfort that comes with dieting. Apart from the psychological aspect, doing regular cardio is just healthy in general and should be part of the regular lifestyle.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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