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What The Science Actually Says About Fasted Cardio & Who Should Try It

Rachael Ajmera, MS, RD
March 21, 2023
Rachael Ajmera, MS, RD
Registered dietitian
By Rachael Ajmera, MS, RD
Registered dietitian
Rachael Ajmera, MS, RD is a registered dietitian and writer based in San Francisco. She holds a master's degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University and an undergraduate degree in Dietetics.
March 21, 2023
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Fasted cardio involves hitting the gym while your body is in a fasted state and fueling up after your workout. And though there are plenty of fitness pros who swear by fasted cardio, it's also a subject of heated debate among others in the industry.

Let's take a deep dive into the science behind fasted cardio, how it may impact weight loss and performance, and whether or not it's right for you.

What is fasted cardio?

Fasted cardio involves increasing your heart rate through aerobic exercise while in a fasted state (having gone around eight to 12 hours without food).

In most cases, this means simply hitting the treadmill or heading to the gym before your morning meal. However, it can also involve shifting your schedule to fit your workout between meals, especially if you're intermittent fasting or following a midday or late window for time-restricted eating (TRE).

While most foods are off-limits right before you exercise with fasted cardio, calorie-free drinks are still on the table. This means that you can still sip on a cup of black coffee or unsweetened tea if you need a quick fix of caffeine to help get you going.

The theory behind how fasted cardio works is pretty simple. The idea is that fasting depletes your body of carbs, forcing it to use alternative sources of energy to power your workout1, such as fat. Fans of fasted cardio also point to other potential benefits of exercising on an empty stomach, including less nausea or fewer cramps and improved performance.


Doing fasted cardio simply means working out on an empty stomach (often first thing in the morning). Fans of this method say it can be helpful for fat loss and reducing nausea and cramps during exercise.

Benefits of fasted cardio.

In addition to saving you time and streamlining your morning gym routine, fasted cardio might also offer a few other perks. Here is a closer look at some of the research-backed benefits of fasted cardio:


It could improve insulin sensitivity.

Some studies suggest that hitting the gym right after you roll out of bed could be beneficial for insulin sensitivity. According to one review, exercising in a fasted state can enhance insulin sensitivity2 in the long run, potentially leading to better blood sugar control over time.


It may increase fat burning.

Many fitness enthusiasts claim that fasted cardio can bump up your body's fat-burning potential, helping to maximize the results of your workout and fine-tune your physique. However, while some research has demonstrated that exercising on an empty stomach may increase the breakdown of fat3, other studies have turned up conflicting findings1 and concluded it is no more efficient at burning fat than normal exercise.


It might help ease nausea.

It's estimated that digestive issues like nausea and vomiting4 affect up to 50% of athletes and can be caused by a long list of factors, including your diet. However, while some people swear by fasted cardio to help prevent mid-workout tummy troubles, it's important to note that prolonged fasting5 can also cause blood sugar levels to plummet, which could actually worsen these issues.

Is fasted cardio good for weight loss?

Some research suggests that fasted cardio can be a good option for managing your weight. For example, a 2016 review of 16 studies found that fasted cardio could be an effective option to boost fat burning3. In another study, fasting before evening exercise reduced net energy intake6 and increased fat burning more than exercising two hours after a meal, which could theoretically translate to weight loss.

Still, the science isn't totally clear-cut when it comes to fasting and weight loss. In fact, a 2020 review even concluded that there is little evidence to back up the idea that fasting increases fat burning, with researchers noting that endurance athletes should avoid high-intensity training1 altogether during a fast. Plus, another small meta-analysis reported that fasted cardio had very little effect on body mass and body fat7.

Muscle loss is another key consideration that could also be impacted by fasting during exercise. While there's definitely not a consensus in this area either, one review reported that pairing intermittent fasting with resistance training could help maintain8 or possibly even increase lean body mass. However, it's worth noting that not all of the studies included in the review involved fasting during exercise.


Fasted cardio doesn't appear to be any better for weight loss than normal cardio. And while there is early research that fasted cardio can help preserve muscle mass, we still need more science to support this benefit too.

Does fasted cardio help athletic performance?

Though there has been a slew of studies on the effects of fasted cardio on exercise performance, the jury is still out on whether skipping breakfast can help or hurt your workout1.

For instance, one study found that exercise performance6 was 3.8% lower in participants who were fasting. Not only that, but energy levels, readiness, pre-exercise motivation, and post-exercise enjoyment also took a dip while fasting. On the other hand, a 2016 study on highly trained endurance athletes found that performance9 was at its peak in the afternoon during Ramadan, while athletes were fasting.

"The research into this question is very young, and we don't have a lot of high-quality studies to inform us," explains Steve Hendricks, a journalist, fasting expert, and author of The Oldest Cure in the World: Adventures in the Art and Science of Fasting.

Hendricks also points out that the effects of fasted cardio on performance can vary depending on a handful of factors1, including the length of your fast, the type of exercise that you're doing, and what your specific goals are, among others.

As an example, one meta-analysis found that eating before exercise had minimal impact on shorter aerobic sessions but could actually enhance performance10 during prolonged workouts. Therefore, adjusting your meal schedule based on your workout may be the best option.

At the end of the day, Hendricks concludes, "the fasted exerciser is likely to improve on some metrics while the fed exerciser improves on others."


There isn't enough research to say whether fasting helps or hurts cardio performance one way or another. It likely depends on the person, as well as the length and style of workout they're doing.

Risks & safety.

Fasted cardio is definitely not a great fit for everyone and could be associated with some serious side effects.

According to Kelsey Gabel, R.D., Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in intermittent fasting, it may be best to break your fast if you experience any symptoms of low blood sugar, such as dizziness, shaking, or a fast heartbeat.

Gabel also points out that fasting in general is also not recommended for certain groups. More specifically, she notes that there is limited research on the safety of fasting for people who are pregnant or lactating and individuals over age 70.

"If you are taking medications with meals or have any other health complications, speaking with a doctor and or dietitian prior to starting fasting is recommended," she adds.

Eating a light meal or snack before exercise can provide your body with fuel to help you power through your workout and may be a better bet if you feel woozy or weak on an empty stomach. Greek yogurt with fresh berries, whole-wheat toast topped with nut butter and sliced bananas, or a smoothie with a scoop of protein powder are a few pre-workout foods that can supply important nutrients, without weighing you down or causing digestive distress once you start moving.


Fasted cardio can lead to symptoms of low blood sugar, such as dizziness, shaking, or an irregularly fast heartbeat. If you experience any of these side effects, it's best to eat something before your workout. Greek yogurt, whole wheat toast, or a protein shake are all easily digestible options that should fuel you up without slowing you down.

So, should you try it?

Research on the possible pros and cons of fasted cardio has been pretty inconsistent, making it hard to draw any definitive conclusions about its impacts on health.

While there are some studies suggesting that it could increase fat burning and rev up athletic performance, there are many others indicating that it might actually have the opposite effect.

If you're interested in fasted cardio for weight loss, there's likely no harm in giving it a try, as long as you stay hydrated, listen to your body, and fill up on nourishing foods afterward.

It's also a good idea to start slow and opt for low-intensity activities over-vigorous or prolonged cardio workouts. Opt for zone 2 training over HIIT-style workouts if you are exercising on an empty stomach.

If you find that you prefer to work out with a hearty breakfast in your belly, that's OK too. Finding a routine that you enjoy enough to stick with is the best way to make exercise a regular part of your life, after all.

If you're already doing intermittent fasting:

If you're already trying intermittent fasting or TRE, it might be easier for you to take advantage of the potential benefits of fasted cardio.

"There isn't a ton [of research] out there about TRE with exercise, but placing the eating window around when you are physically active may be the easiest [approach]," explains Gabel. She also notes that in studies that combined alternate-day fasting and exercise, fasting didn't interfere with the participants' ability to exercise.

However, Gabel emphasizes that it's important to listen to your body to figure out what works best for you.


While there's no guarantee that fasted cardio will help you lose weight or improve athletic performance any more than normal cardio, it's worth a shot if you're someone who is already doing intermittent fasting or doesn't have time to eat before your workout window. Just pay attention to how it makes you feel, and stop if you notice any symptoms of low blood sugar.

Fasted cardio tips.

If you're interested in trying fasted cardio, here are a few of the top tips to make the most of your workout. Remember to start slow, listen to your body, and don't be afraid to adjust your routine as needed.

  1. Keep it short: Limit your gym time to around 30 to 45 minutes while doing fasted cardio.
  2. Don't push too hard: Stick to low-intensity, steady-state cardio exercises like walking, jogging, or biking. Longer or more intense workouts (like HIIT or endurance runs) might be a better choice after a meal.
  3. Fuel up afterward: Eat a nutritious meal or snack rich in protein and complex carbs afterward, which can help speed up muscle recovery by replenishing glycogen stores11, according to Hendricks.
  4. Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water during and after your workout. For intense sweat sessions, a sports drink or electrolyte mix might also be needed.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long should you do fasted cardio?

It's generally recommended to limit your fasted cardio sessions to around 30 to 45 minutes at a time. Longer workouts on an empty stomach are more likely to drain your energy levels and lead to low blood sugar or fatigue.

Should I drink water during a fasted cardio?

Staying hydrated is crucial, regardless of whether or not you eat before you exercise. Drinking plenty of water before and during your workout can help prevent dehydration and replace fluids lost through sweat.

What is the best fasted cardio?

Fasted cardio might be a good option for short, low-intensity workouts or steady-state activities, like walking, biking, and jogging. For prolonged or intense workouts, eating a quick snack beforehand is generally a better bet. 

Is it OK to do fasted cardio every day?

For healthy adults, moderate amounts of fasted cardio are likely safe to do on a regular basis, provided you're staying hydrated and filling up on nutrient-dense foods after your workout. However, people with underlying conditions or other health concerns should check with a doctor before adding fasted cardio to their daily routine.

The takeaway.

So, is fasted cardio better than fed? And is fasted cardio good for weight loss? Research hasn't turned up any definitive answers on whether or not working out on an empty stomach is actually more effective. However, grabbing a quick snack or meal is definitely a good choice before long or intense workouts. Additionally, keep in mind that all types of physical activity can be beneficial, regardless of whether you're fasted or fed. Therefore, the most important thing is to find a routine that works for you and stick to it.

Rachael Ajmera, MS, RD author page.
Rachael Ajmera, MS, RD
Registered dietitian

Rachael Ajmera, MS, RD is a registered dietitian and writer based in San Francisco. She holds a master's degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University and an undergraduate degree in Dietetics.

Rachael works as a freelance writer and editor for several health and wellness publications. She is passionate about sharing evidence-based information on nutrition and health and breaking down complex topics into content that is engaging and easy to understand.

When she's not writing, Rachael enjoys experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen, reading, gardening, and spending time with her husband and dogs.