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March 19, 2014

Confessions of a Former Cardio Queen

“Dear Jill, I want to tell you a story because reading your blogs finally, FINALLY gave me permission to do things a different way and I am so glad I found you!!

A couple years ago, a pro fitness competitor was holding a seminar near my house. I followed this woman and so I was so excited to be able to attend her event! We got to train with her and then there was time set aside to have her look over each of our individual training regimens and give us feedback. At the time I was doing about an hour of running every day, with some fitness classes throw in and a few weight training sessions. So, what I considered quite a bit. After I asked the competitor what I could do differently to get better results and explained that I was tired of doing so much cardio, she looked over to her friend who was also there and they shared a laugh. And then she turned to me and said, “Sorry sister, but if you want to be lean, this has to be your new normal!” And then she proceeded to recommend I add in 3-4 additional elliptical sessions each week. 

Jill, I was so upset, it was all I could do not to leave early! It made me feel so defeated and hopeless! I went home and CRIED!

That was 2 years ago, and since then, I started doing my own homework, have added in more metabolic conditioning workouts–short-duration, high-intensity and completely cut out my jogging and I am getting better results than ever. THANK YOU for being a sane voice in the industry! You have helped me more than you know!!!”


Aaaaaah! Are you gals as heartbroken by this email as I was when I first read it?

It brought me right back to my competition days, and to the days when my entire life revolved around my cardio minutes.

I won’t sit here and write about how I did things “the smart way.” Uh uh. Nope, sure didn’t and I paid for it dearly. I got caught up in a cycle where I always had to do more cardio to “burn off treats” and then the more cardio I did, the more freaking hungry I was, so I ended up eating more, for which I had to do even more cardio to atone. Holy!

I was addicted to long-duration cardio for many years.

I remember every single day, counting down the NUMBER OF MINUTES that I had left each day. As I got closer and closer to my shows or my shoots, the minutes increased. I actually had a formula I followed starting at 12 weeks out:

12 weeks out – 1 hour/day
11 weeks out – 1 hr 10 min/day
10 weeks out – 1 hr 20 min/day
9 weeks out – 1 hr 30 min/day

And so on….


How crazy is that “formula?!” It wasn’t based on anything, wasn’t based on my results or how I was feeling or looking or my hunger, cravings, energy, and certainly not my level of misery (high) or my ability to sustain it (low).

In other words, I equated more exercise with more results.

And that’s simply not the case. Like Jade says, “More is not better, better is better.”

And yet, we think about exercise in this way, don’t we? Even though I haven’t done this for years, I still at times find myself going, “Well, I’ll just up my cardio this week a bit,” or “I’ll just do a few extra minutes on the treadmill,” or “Maybe I’ll squeeze in some extra sprints to speed things up and shed a little.”

Ok, fine. But what no one talks about is the fact that doing long-duration cardio can become an obsession:

  • You begin counting down the minutes left each day
  • You add together every calorie the cardio machines report to make sure you hit a specific (random!) threshold every day
  • If you miss a day, you obsess and convince yourself you’re blowing up by the minute
  • You don’t know how to control your weight without exercise
  • You use cardio as a way to “repent” for poor food choices
  • Even though you know intellectually that shorter, more-intense workouts should be better for results, you refuse to think that would work for you, and are scared to try it
  • You think “other people” can get away with less, but not you. If you let up, you’ll blow up. You can’t be trusted around food if you don’t get in all your cardio

What chou think? These were THE EXACT thoughts I had drifting through my mind for years.

Jade would say, “If you just didn’t do as much cardio, you wouldn’t have the cravings that you have, or be as hungry.” My response was to roll my eyes and tell him, “Thanks, but you don’t understand. My appetite is so big, I need to do a ton of cardio or else I’ll blow up because I can’t control myself.”

And in fact, at the time, that was true. I did have a huge appetite. And that was precisely BECAUSE I was doing 2+ hours a day of cardio!


Is there a such thing as “exercise tolerance?”

Here’s the thing … mo’ cardio mo’ problems. At least in the long-term.

Your metabolism is like tires on a car. You can’t keep putting miles on it and expect it to continue responding the same way. Continuing to increase your exercise duration (while also decreasing cals) is not benign. Your body adapts. This is what I call “exercise tolerance”–it’s the same as building up your alcohol tolerance. Over time, you need more and more to get the same effect.

So if you start with an hour of cardio a day for several months. Eventually, the transient results you get by upping it in the first place diminish. You plateau. So what do you do? Add some more minutes so you can continue getting results. And you do, for a short while, until your body doesn’t want to give it up again and then you have to add even more. So can you see that over time, you have to continue doing more and more to attain further results AND if you do less, you might actually even GAIN?? Because you body is now in a cardio cycle where you need to be doing a baseline of exercise every single day JUST TO MAINTAIN??

We see this all the time in long-distance runners who get injured and can no longer run. They have to stop exercising but their metabolism doesn’t get the message (and also due to the lasting compensatory responses on hunger and cravings, they continue eating the same way) and they blow up like a water balloon. It’s not their fault. They have effectively TAUGHT their metabolism to function at a specific level of activity. And anything less, and it responds, often by gaining.


And we can even know all of this intellectually and it’s STILL difficult to convince ourselves to stop doing all that cardio.

we are racing

So what’s the solution?

This is tricky, but I think it first starts with self-trust. Realizing that there may be a different way for you, and that you have the guts to try it. Besides, the old way will always be there for you. You can ALWAYS add cardio back later if you need to (you won’t), so why not TRY a different way?

BTW: If you just effing love cardio and want to keep doing hours a day, fine. Just stay mindful of your body’s responses–hunger, cravings, energy. There’s nothing inherently “evil” about long-duration cardio (and studies show it’s a powerful mood enhancer), just a few things to stay mindful of: a) if you are miserable, like I was, that’s a problem, b) there are plenty of ways to get the same (and even better results) if you dare to try, and c) putting more and more miles on your metabolism is not benign, and many former fitness competitors, marathoners and group fitness instructors have gotten into trouble with metabolic damage, adrenal fatigue, catecholamine resistance, hypothyroid, loss of menses, infertility, etc.

Three Quick Solutions:

1) Shorten up dem workouts.

There’s a bell-shaped curve when it comes to duration. More is not better and more than what is effective may actually be detrimental long-term. So find that sweet spot. Usually it’s no more than 30 minutes. One of the best things about shorter workouts is that you can push harder. Psychologically, it’s easier. And it’s intensity that drives results, not duration. I know it’s SCARY to shorten your workout time when you are used to hours a day (!!!), but honestly, I promise not only will you get great results, but you’ll get your life back!

2) Match your food intake to your activity level.

One of the reasons women get in trouble when they add more cardio into their routine is because they also cut calories. They think creating the biggest “calorie deficit” is ideal. And yet, your metabolism no likey. Overtime it compensates to the point that this method stops working, and you can get into a metabolic damage situation. This is an unbalanced metabolism (exercise UP; calories DOWN). In order to re-balance it, assuming you want to continue with your exercise volume, increase cal intake from healthy sources like lean protein, veggies, fruit and clean starches (exercise UP, calories UP). OR, you can do my personal favorite: exercise less, eat less (exercise DOWN, calories DOWN). When we cut our cardio … miraculously, yes, this actually works if you have the balls to try it … our hunger decreases too. Learn to eat only when you’re hungry, staying in tune with your body’s signals.

Don’t get this mixed up with the Cardio Cycle where you are constantly trying to “burn off” your food. You don’t eat and then exercise it off, and then get ravenous because of all the exercise you’re doing (can you see how this becomes a never-ending feedback loop?). Instead, stay mindful and engage in exercise you love without getting obsessive about calorie counting. Allow the metabolism time to recalibrate.

3) Incorporate more weight-based cardio.

Your body responds to changes in training. So when you do an hour of elliptical every day while watching Kelly & Michael every single day, your body is not responding anymore. How about adding track sprints? How about switching up the machines you use? Incorporating plyometrics or bodyweight strength moves? How about a little metabolic conditioning to get the cardio effect? Anyone who thinks weight training doesn’t elicit a cardio effect has never done heavy walking lunges!

Byyyyyyyeeeee elliptical! It’s very possible to get amazing fat loss, body-shaping results from lifting weights faster. The old way is, well, old school. And frankly, aint nobody got time for hours at the gym. It’s not superior. It’s not fun. And it can damage the metabolism further for many women. #NoThanks!


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