Updated: Jan 28
What cardio you do depends on a multitude of factors and variables which need to be explored in order for you to make an informed decision. Let's start from the beginning.
What Is Cardio Training?
Cardiovascular training is a method of exercise where the aim is to "improve the efficiency of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygenated blood to the working muscles."
What Are The Benefits Of Cardio Training?
An improved cardiovascular system provides benefits such as:
Lower blood pressure and resting heart rate - indicators of a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke
Improved hormone levels
Increased levels of energy
Weight loss (depending on many factors which we will discuss)
Better quality sleep
Clearly the benefits of cardiovascular training are vast and varied, meaning it should be a part of ones training regimen. Cardiovascular training comes in many forms, and it is important to explore these to find what type is more beneficial and which you should include into your regime. (1) (2) (3) (4)
The Common Concept Of Cardio Training
When we talk about cardiovascular training, unfortunately most people envision a row of treadmills and cross-trainers in the gym with people slugging away for a sweaty, breathless half-an-hour. This is cardiovascular training yes, - anything which stresses the heart and lungs is technically cardio training - however, does this method of training do more damage than good?
Potential Damage From Cardio Training
The truth lies in how much stress (physical, emotional and hormonal) it places on the body. Any exercise is a form of stress and chronic stress is detrimental to our health. (5) Chronic stress is a modern phenomena as the lives we live today are vastly different to lives of our ancestors. Stress thousands of years ago was immediate and acute; escaping a hungry sabre-tooth tiger or having no food for 3 days is rather stressful, but it doesn’t last long. Compared to today where work, bills, relationships and environmental factors leave us in a state of constant (albeit low level of) stress. This increases the risk of many diseases and ultimately, mortality. (6)
Where does cardiovascular training fit into this? Well, it both increases and decreases stress levels, depending on how it is performed. If you normally have low levels of stress, but are in a stressful period, then exercise can help reduce your stress levels. (7) If you are the type of person who leads a stressful life and then goes for a long run 3-4 times per week, you are more likely doing more harm than good. (8) (9) (10) By stressing an already stressed system, something has to give. Injury, sleep problems, depression, reduced libido and kidney problems are all potential effects of chronic stress and excessive cardio training. (11) Chronic stress also makes it extremely difficult to lose weight. (12) (13) Think of that the next time you are stressing about your waistline whilst pounding away on the treadmill.
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What Are You Aiming To Achieve?
When selecting what type of cardiovascular training, or any training for that matter, it is important to be conscious of what it is you are trying to achieve. Want to build muscle? Lift heavy weights and eat enough nutritious food. Want to “lose weight”? This means nothing. Hacking a limb off is the best way to “lose weight”.
Want to lose FAT? That’s more like it. Fat loss is much more complex than we thought and there are many factors which affect this. In essence, by eating the right foods in the right amounts, lifting heavy weights and performing high intensity bursts of exercise whilst remaining active outside the gym, and placing equal emphasis on all other areas of life such as sleep and recovery is the best way to lose fat. Notice how we said high intensity bursts of exercise?
Combining high intensity, quick bursts of exercise with low intensity exercise (think hiking outdoors, being on your feet more than you are seated and generally move a lot throughout the day) optimises fat loss. If you want to become good at running long distances, run for a long distance regularly. If you want to become good at being on the cross trainer for hours at a time (why anyone would is beyond me) then go ahead. Cardio training for the sake of cardio training is a pointless exercise (no pun intended). Your time and effort is much better spent trying to acquire a skill or enjoying a sport whilst incorporating an element of cardiovascular exercise. It is like the difference between painting a picture and thoughtlessly brushing paint onto a canvas. The action is the same, but the intention and outcome are different. And with only one are you left with a work of art.
What Should I Do?
Pick an activity or sport that you want to try or have been a part of in the past, or learn a martial art. As I have mentioned before, the ability to effectively and confidently defend yourself is one of the most important skills we should learn as human beings. Your life may depend on your ability to defend yourself - hopefully this day never comes. I can also vouch for the effectiveness of martial arts training for fitness and cardiovascular health. Martial artists are some of the fittest athletes in the planet and some of the best, most tiring workouts I have ever had have been in front of a punch bag or in preparation for a competition (I have also done long distance runs in the past). Being part of a sport taps in to most people’s naturally competitive nature, and being a part of a team taps in to our tribal nature.
We are not designed to be motivated to expend energy. In evolutionary terms, this would have served us no purpose. Throughout most of the 200,000+ years of our existence sources of energy were not guaranteed, and the ability to store and limit energy expenditure would have been beneficial (would you go for a run if you didn’t think you could eat for a few days after?). (14) It is therefore important to have other driving factors when exercising. Pick something which motivates you or provides you with additional, useful benefits.
Related post: 5 Exercises You Should Master
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.
Co-founder of 'The Evolved Way', and experienced personal trainer, Samson practices what he preaches. His own healthy lifestyle, which informs this site, is based on understanding the right way to eat and exercise, not excluding of course going out and enjoying life knowing you can still feel and look good.