Lately, there’s been a lot of hating on cardio among fitness pros. Let’s get this straight–the idea that cardio makes people fat is absurd. Is it the best way to lose fat? No. Can it be detrimental if overdone? Of course. But to say that any kind of exercise is “bad” for you, especially if you love it, is a little short-sighted, IMHO.
Though I don’t believe that cardio is the best way to lose weight, there are plenty of reasons to keep some form of cardio exercise in your weekly exercise routine. But like with anything else, just don’t go overboard.
Is there a “right kind” of cardio?
If your goal is fat loss and/or muscle maintenance, then I think there is. Shorter, more intense interval or sprint training (30 mins or less) optimizes our hormonal profile of catecholamines, cortisol, HGH and testosterone to maintain muscle and preferentially burn more calories after the workout is over. The higher the intensity of the workout, the more we use sugar to fuel the workout, and in turn we use fat stores to replete post-workout.
Longer bouts of cardio (40 mins or longer) can change the hormonal situation to a more cortisol-dominant state. Mostly, this occurs as a direct result of the duration. In other words, longer workouts automatically cause us to pace ourselves more, therefore intensity suffers and we end up with more of a moderate-intensity workout. Once again, not “bad,” just simply yields a different effect over time.
When it comes to cardio, you can reach a point of diminishing returns. More cardio does not equal more results ad infinitum.
One key to remember is that more is not better, better quality is better. Duration is not directly related to results.
Doing more and more workouts that create an unopposed cortisol state (longer, moderate intensity) can impact results. It can change how we store fat, where we store it and how good we are at building or maintaining muscle. Too much coritsol ’round the clock can strip muscle. This is why you commonly see distance runners with skinner arms and legs. It’s simply harder to build muscle in a more catabolic state.
Also, chronically high cortisol, whether created via exercise, fasting, stress, etc can increase hunger and cravings. So increasing cardio is not benign. Exercise more, and you’ll probably end up eating more too.
And finally, in a small minority of people, lots of moderate-intensity cardio can eventually affect the adrenals and thyroid (as a result of catecholamine and/or cortisol resistance, and eventual insulin resistance. You’ve probably heard of metabolic damage, a condition that has been getting more eyes on it lately. Basically it is the resultant fat loss-resistant state that occurs in some people who have been doing hours of cardio for years and years (while also following low cal diets). Over time, these practices can wreak havoc on the metabolism to the point where the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis becomes down-regulated and less metabolically active.
However, it’s important to note that although this can be common in competitors and long-time yo-yo dieters–and should be taken seriously–most people won’t experience this. Metabolic damage occurs on a sliding scale, and for most people, implementing the right kinds of exercise (mainly heavy, slower weight training plus leisure walking) can rectify the situation fairly easily, along with a tight diet.
I have written about my own experience with what I call The Cardio Cycle, where you get caught up in doing so much cardio that you are a) not experiencing any changes (i.e. more is not better) and b) doing so much that you have to continue doing that much simply to maintain. You can build up a tolerance. Yikes. Not fun.
But let’s not forget: not everyone exercises to lose fat or to build muscle.
Lots of people simply love cardio. And for us to tell them not to do it when it adds to their quality of life is crazy.
Here are a few reasons I believe you SHOULD do cardio:
1) Shorter, high-intensity workouts like this one are superior at burning fat when compared to long-duration, moderate intensity ones. You also hold onto muscle more effectively.
2) It’s a a natural mood enhancer. Been shown to boost mood and overall wellbeing when done for pleasure, and is a solid part of a natural health protocol to treat depression.
3) Cardio done outside offers a natural high and can feel exhilarating. Try a jog through the woods or down the beach, and tell me you don’t feel awesome afterward. Vitamin D production is a bonus.
4) Leisure walking, especially in nature, is an effective way to lower stress. This is not power-walking mind you. It should feel relaxing and you shouldn’t be out of breath or sweating. Jade and I do an hour each morning.
5) Cardio exercise increases, well, cardiovascular fitness. Lately, there’s been some talk about marathon training being detrimental. I think this is sensationalized because honestly, when it comes to the general population, people need to be exercising MORE, not less.
In light of the fact that most people are sedentary, 99% of people will benefit from any/all kinds of cardio. The key is not to use it as a weight loss tool.
6) Sometimes it just feels good to sweat. I admit it, after a week of traveling and shitty half-attempts at workouts, when I get home, I like to jump on the StepMill and kill it. I want to sweat out the wine and sodium and plane nastiness and everything else that’s been building up. And a good sweat is the perfect solution.
7) Cardio boosts immunity–partly due to the cortisol/stress effects of it. Ever go on vacation and get sick? Cortisol (a stress hormone) decreases on vacation and as a result, our immune defenses are less (along the same lines of why you would get a cortisone shot–it decreases inflammation). A little physical stress can be a good thing.
8) Sometimes I do moderate-intensity exercise when I just don’t feel like killing myself. When I feel good, I go for it with track sprints or something similarly intense, but mentally, I need to be in the right headspace for that kind of intensity. Sometimes, taking it easy can feel good too. Gotta listen to your body.
9) Sprinting is the most underrated exercise to develop the abs.
10) Sprinting can boost functionality. It boosts power, speed, flexibility and even can build muscle. Opt for shorter sprints, like 70 meters or 20s sprints up hill for best results. Rest as long as you need to in between.
11) It can be fun! I fell in love with exercise in my early teens not because I was killing it in the weight room, but because I loved Jane Fonda. I liked dance routines, choreography, step aerobics, moving to the beat of the music. And based on the pace at which the popularity of Zumba and other dance-based group classes are growing, I am not alone. If Zumba is the only thing that will get someone into a gym, who am I to tell them not to do it? It can be the “gateway” workout. Maybe someone who dances will eventually step onto the gym floor and push some weights. Good. Done!