Whether you run marathons for fun or wouldn’t be caught dead in the treadmill room, there are plenty of strong opinions about the role of cardio.
It’s hard to know what to believe, let alone where to find an unbiased source of information on the pros and cons. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
What is cardio?
Cardiovascular exercise is anything that raises your heart rate. Technically, running for the bus could be considered cardio.
Some common workouts include:
- Running, walking and jogging
- Martial arts
- Sports, from golf to soccer
- Machines such as elliptical, ski erg, assault bike, and stair machine
This can even include strength training, whether that’s with weights or bodyweight. For example, HIIT or Tabata-style circuit training.
Heavy lifting can also include an element of cardio, such as compound lifts — like deadlifts and squats — that work multiple muscle groups.
The benefits of cardio
There’s no denying the endorphin rush that comes after a serious cardio session, also known as “runner’s high”. Plus, it gives you an excuse to eat all the carbs.
In terms of what it does to your body, cardio has a ton of health benefits. Regular cardio exercise keeps your heart strong and resilient, which is incredibly important for overall and long-term health.
Cardio can also reduces stress, keeps your joints fluid through regular movement, promotes better sleep, and greatly improves general fitness levels.
Plus, it’s a great reason to get outside on a beautiful day. There’s no better way to enjoy the sunshine than to go on an invigorating run.
The downsides of cardio
Cardio isn’t all endorphin rushes and restful sleep. Despite the mental and physical benefits, it can have some undesirable effects.
The body is great at adapting. This means it eventually becomes more efficient at using energy (calories) to do the same task.
This mechanism works great for weightlifting and progressive overload. Did your body adapt to lifting a certain weight? Lift heavier weights!
The premise is the same for cardio. For example, if you run 5k every day, your body will eventually learn to burn less energy each time. Which is great— unless you’re doing it for weight loss.
Think about it: Loading an extra plate onto a barbell is a lot simpler than doing more and more cardio every week.
Cardio can also take its toll on your joints. This is especially true for high-impact exercises such as running, or plyometric training, which involves a lot of jumping.
If your joints are suffering, invest in a quality pair of trainers, check your form to minimise unnecessary wear and tear, or maybe switch to a less intensive form of cardio.
So what about cardio eating into your muscle gains? This isn’t entirely true. While going overboard can mean your body progresses past burning fat to burning some of your muscle for fuel, this is easily solved by just eating enough calories and protein, as well as doing regular strength training to build and maintain muscle mass.
How often should you do cardio?
No matter how much you hate cardio, it is essential to maintaining your physical health (especially your heart).
Exactly how often should you be doing it? According to The Mayo Clinic, aim to get at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week.
That can be easily achieved with:
- A fast-paced 20-minute walk every day
- 2-3 classes a week
- A quick 15 minutes at the end of your weekday workouts
But that doesn’t mean you have to start sweating away on the elliptical. It doesn’t even have to involve dedicated workouts. It’s more a matter of moving your body enough to get your heart rate up.
This can include:
- Walking at a fast place or on an incline (such as uphill)
- Playing with your kids or dog
Or, if you’re a weights junkie, going all out on those heavy squats, deadlifts, and snatches until you’re struggling to catch your breath.