Last week I blogged about one of the most common questions I get asked as a Personal Trainer. I want to continue to answer questions that I get asked a lot, and today tackle probably the second most common question I get asked: “Do I really need to do cardiovascular exercise?”
If you are a runner or cyclist or addicted to some other form of cardio exercise, you probably don’t have the problem of motivating yourself to do it. But a lot of people who actually like to exercise and practice the sport of their choice, do not like cardio. They often enjoy their chosen sport so much, they don’t want to spend their precious time on any other kind of exercise. But regardless of whether you like aerobic workouts or not, let me explain here why it is so important not to skip it.
Cardio exercise means any exercise that brings your heart rate up for an extended period of time. Now, sometimes it is better not to do any cardio exercise: If you are recovering from an injury or you have health concerns it may be better to avoid cardiovascular exercise. The best is to check this first with your doctor.
The American Heart Association suggests that to improve overall cardiovascular health, you perform at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity).
I recommend moderate-intensity exercise two or three days a week for at least 30 minutes. One of these sessions should include high intensity interval training (known as HIIT). HIIT means exercising as hard as you can for a short period, resting briefly, and exercising again as hard as you can for another short period (e.g. sprint for 30 seconds, rest 30 seconds, repeat for 5 minutes). On the other days, perform resistance training (as I have explained in my previous blog on how often to exercise).
If you have not been living in outer space, you probably are aware of how cardio exercise is often recommended for weight loss – by almost everyone. Fitness and health magazines, doctors, trainers, health websites etc. However, as I have said many times (check out my blog post on why exercise is overrated for weight loss), I do not agree with recommending a lot of exercise, in particular cardiovascular exercise, to promote weight loss. This has been confirmed by studies as well.¹
Exercising can help in terms of establishing a healthier lifestyle (which would lead to healthier food choices and less sedentary behaviour), but in the end, you only lose weight in the kitchen. You cannot out-train a bad diet. On the contrary, exercising a lot can lead to increased appetite and the feeling that one has “earned” a reward – that piece of cake or slice of pizza. Unfortunately, one slice of pizza can annihilate a half hour of running. One piece of cheese cake can nullify the calories burned in a spinning class. And that is only comparing calorie for calorie. We know now that not all calories are created equal. Half an avocado has a totally different physiological response in your body than a packet of Oreos.
Now, even though cardio may not be all that effective for weight loss, there are still plenty of reasons why you should do it:
- The heart is a muscle and needs training like all your other muscles in your body. The lungs need training too. Regular cardio workouts can strengthen your heart and blood vessels and improve the flow of oxygen throughout your body. It can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol. They can decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and some kinds of cancer.
- Reduce your risk for heart disease, One of the main reasons I like cardio (you may know that I’m quite addicted to spinning) is that you get a massive endorphin high. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. You feel happy and alive, and the drug doesn’t cost a thing, it’s provided by your own body!
- As a result, you also decrease stress. It has also been shown to decrease anxiety and depression. It may also decrease the risk for dementia. A study of Swedish women has shown that high cardiovascular fitness in midlife is associated with a decreased risk of subsequent dementia.
- Exercise can improve your sleep. Chronic insomnia is a very common sleep disorder in adults. Exercise can help by decreasing arousal, anxiety and depressive symptoms.
- Believe me, you actually have more energy. I know this sounds strange as I’m talking about exhausting yourself physically, but seriously, you will feel good and energized. Just trust me on this one. Physiologically, the more you exercise aerobically, the more mitochondria (these are the power plants in your cells) your body makes to produce more energy to meet your needs, which is one reason how — and why — regular cardiovascular exercise actually creates more available energy for your body
- Be a role model to your kids or spouse or friend. My kids don’t run like me or spin, but they love hiking and playing tennis with me.
Now as I have mentioned above, I know a lot of people who do not enjoy cardio at all. However, I think it is very important for the above mentioned reasons to include cardio exercise in your training programme. The trick is to find a cardio exercise that you LIKE. If it’s not running, try cycling around your neighbourhood. Maybe you like swimming? You could just go hiking up hills with your friends. Or try the rowing machine at the gym, it is actually really cool (and works your back and legs at the same time!). Maybe you just want to mix it up? How about running, spinning and kickboxing? Do different things on different days or combine them all into one 30 minute session.
Also important is to start slow if you’re not used to exercise. Maybe start with 20 minutes at a time at least a couple of times a week. Try to gradually increase that to a level you feel comfortable at.
Believe me, you will be hooked on those endorphins before you know it. Once you have experienced that feeling, there is no going back. I would love to hear about your favourite aerobic exercise too and how you got into it.
¹ For example, “The Role of Exercise and Physical Activity in Weight Loss and Maintenance“