One of the most common questions that we get at AMP, and I’m sure every other trainer out there, is some form of “What should I do for cardio?” or “How much cardio should I be doing?” The answer is “It depends.” I know, that’s a very vague, non committal response. But it is a very valid response because cardio means different things to different people. When most people hear the word cardio, images associated with going out for a run or hitting the treadmill come up. While its great to get up and move, there needs to be a WHY behind cardio. If you enjoy doing some form of cardio whether its running, or biking, then by all means go for it. Some people really enjoy the solace of going for a run and it can be a stress reliever for them mentally. However, if you hate, absolutely hate any form of cardio, then why do it.
What is Cardio?
Cardio is really any activity that affects your heart and lungs, meaning your heart and respiration rate. But in more scientific terms, cardio = energy systems. Without going into a whole physiology lesson, we have our aerobic system and anaerobic system, and within those there is more specificity. The question “should I do cardio” relates to our aerobic system or slow, long duration exercises.
Keep the Goal the Goal
What is your goal? This is largely where your cardio question will be answered.
- Is your goal to be an endurance athlete?
- Are you exercising for health purposes?
- Is your goal purely weight/fat loss?
If the goal is to complete a marathon or any endurance event, then you are going to need cardio. You really can’t get past the race without it.
If the goal is for health purposes, like reducing cholesterol, or other health markers, low intensity cardiovascular training can be helpful. According to the AHA, 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days per week for a total of 150 minutes is recommended.
If the goal is weight loss or fat loss, then there are much better options for you to accomplish those goals. This is where cardio may not be a great option for you. Here’s why: When you do long duration cardio at a moderate pace, the body uses a certain amount of energy or calories to complete the task. The tricky part is that the body is incredibly resilient and adaptive. Survival is the name of the game, and conserving energy is the only thing that matters. What ends up happening is that 1 mile run that started burning 200 calories* the first week or so that you did it, burns maybe 150 calories in subsequent weeks. Why? For one, efficiency and two, conserving energy.
From this point there are a few options, you can choose to go faster, covering the same distance in less time, or go further. Eventually the same issue will arise. The body will adapt, become efficient, and conserve as much energy as possible.
The solution to the cardio problem is to either make up the caloric difference through nutrition, or to start doing weight training and/or interval training. Weight training is a must. There’s no way around that. Weight training will have a positive impact on metabolism and certain hormonal levels, but even past that, it will build strength to help you move and feel better.
Then move into conditioning, anaerobic exercise, or interval training. Whatever you want to call it, mixing up intense periods of exercise with periods of rest avoids that efficiency adaptation that we see with slower, steady state cardio. Additional benefits to inserting conditioning workouts are the short amount of time they take up and the increase in calorie burn post exercise, improved body composition, increased insulin sensitivity, and improved health markers, like cholesterol levels. Remember, intensity trumps duration all the time when it comes to fat loss.
The cardio question always inevitably arises when progress stalls or is nonexistent to begin with. The typical solution is to do more. More exercise, more cardio as that has to be the ONLY solution to the problem. If you throw more of something at it, eventually results will happen. Right? When progress stalls, or worse, doesn’t happen in the first place, you need to look at two pieces of your life, then get back to more. How is your nutrition and how is your sleep. If both are crappy, then fix those first and see what happens to your results.