Why cardio training is overrated

Oct 10, 2019

One of the questions I get asked a lot is: What do you do for cardio?

This question is an interesting one for me because it reminds me of all those hours, weeks & years I spent on a treadmill thinking that:

A) Cardio is the most efficient form of exercise

B) Cardio burns the most calories

C) Cardio is going to give me a flat belly

D) Getting "my heart rate up" to the point that I can barely breathe is essential and necessary for my health

E) Cardio is a good way of releasing stress

F) Experiencing pain when doing cardio is ok and ignoring that pain is worth it for that "runner´s high.

Now I´m pretty sure you´ve believed in one or two of those things yourself, and perhaps you still do.

Most of the women I speak to rely on cardio as a way to lose or maintain their weight and they´re always surprised when I tell them that it´s a bad strategy. A very bad strategy.

These are often women who are pretty hard core, who run several times a week, might have raced a marathon (or a half) or who are doing several spinning classes a week.

These ladies take a serious approach to their fitness. They´re often type A´s and they reach out because they don´t understand why they are getting so little in return for all the effort they put in.

These are the women who complain of bloating, fatigue, difficulty controlling their hunger, irregular (or missing) periods and a yoyo type relationship with food.

I am well familiar with all these feelings as it was exactly how I felt when I was running up to 70km a week and hitting the gym nearly every day in my twenties.

(Me at the height of my cardio frenzy after completing the City to Surf in Sydney in 2003.)

I was burning calories like crazy (or so I thought) yet I was considerably chubbier, weaker, more tired and generally less fit than I am today. 

I was also mentally drained from the pressure I was putting myself under for the sake of being fit, and pretty devastated that it wasn't working. 

So before I go into the reasons why I believe cardio to be a bad strategy for weight loss, let me start off by saying that I am not against cardio as a whole.

Being active is wonderful and the human body was made to move. Where things start to fall apart is when people misuse cardio training and believe it to be a necessity or the holy grail of fitness training. It is not. 

Here are 5 reasons why cardio is overrated as a weight loss tool and as a form of exercise in general.

Cardio will wear out your joints

Cardio is doing the same repetitive motion over and over again until you get exhausted. As you get more and more tired, you lose form and important joints like your knees and hips take a hit, which in turn can have repercussions on your lower back.

Because of the repetitive nature of cardio, you are always recruiting the same muscles in the same manner making them stiffer and if you have a bad posture, your weaknesses will only get worse as a result of doing cardio. 

While I often refer to Pilates as a form of "smart" movement because it focuses on improving your posture, recruiting the smaller postural muscles that support the spine and benefit the health of your back, strengthening the areas where you tend to be weak and stretching the areas where you tend to get tight, I would say that cardio is the complete opposite. I will let you guess what that could be (hint: it also starts with an s)

Cardio is a bad strategy for weight loss

Studies show that when three groups of people (diet only, diet and cardio, cardio only) start a fat loss program, the weight loss results from the group doing cardio only were statistically insignificant. (1)

Even though you may experience results in the beginning of your cardio journey, these often reduce over time.

The more you practice cardio and the "better" you become, the more you have to push yourself in order to burn the same amount of calories. As your body adapts to the training, it becomes more energy efficient and the amount of calories you burn will decrease.

This is great news for human physiology (our bodies are extremely intelligent and resilient) but it´s another nail in the coffin if you´re trying to use cardio for fat loss. (2)

Cardio increases hunger in women

You might have heard that cardiovascular exercise suppresses appetite but a research team out of Ottawa (3) conducted a study and found that to be true only for men! In women, cardiovascular exercise actually boosts appetite and that is why many women feel stuck in a vicious circle.

A woman goes for a run, her appetite is increased, so she eats. If she eats in excess, frequently she is tempted to “run more to burn off the extra food”. During that attempt, she burns less than she thinks, while continually boosting her appetite. She runs more, eats more, trains harder, gets more fatigued, but sees less results.

Does that sound familiar?

It certainly does to me... I spent years in that hamster wheel before I found a way out.

Cardio increases stress hormones

I know we often use cardio as a way to escape mental stress but it puts our body under physical stress and the hormones released are the same as if you were being chased by a bear. Your body doesn´t know how to make the difference between the two and among other things will release the stress hormone cortisol. 

Cortisol has a vital job as one of the body’s stress hormones, released as part of the fight-or-flight reflex. It shuts down less critical functions like reproduction, digestion and immunity to focus on fighting the immediate physical threat and breaks down tissue to provide the energy necessary.

The functions of cortisol are supposed to be immediate and short lived and too much cortisol for too long can have serious, negative effects. The tissue breakdown, reduced protein synthesis and conversion of protein to glucose can decrease musculature and increase abdominal fat. Not exactly the results you´re looking for, is it?

Elevated levels of cortisol for extended periods of time also suppresses levels of growth hormone and sex hormones, which can reduce libido and fertility (yes too much cardio can be one of the reasons why your period has gone MIA). 

Moderating cortisol levels is important for the maintenance of our overall health but also the health of our gut. Our gut is our emotional brain and is massively affected by stress no matter what shape or form it comes in. So it´s no wonder many of the women I speak to suffer from bloating.

I used to have terrible bloating and got diagnosed with IBS at the height of my cardio frenzy. Reducing stress on my body has had a massive impact on my digestive health.

After swapping cardio for the FIT BODY FRESH MIND lifestyle, my bloating disappeared, the fat I had been storing around my belly vanished, my immune system got stronger and my period came back after having been MIA for over a year!

Cardio is addictive

You might have heard of the “runner’s high”. This is a very real phenomenon and one I was definitely hooked on. A study by Boecker et al., found that the body releases opioids after endurance exercise and that these effects cause “addictive aspects of excessive sports, where injured athletes continue their training in spite of detrimental consequences to their health.”

This means that chasing endorphins makes us forget that we might be hurting ourselves. I was definitely guilty of this and it wasn't until I could barely walk and consulted a doctor who ordered me to stop running (if I ever wanted to use my knees again) that I realized I was an addict.

I had become so consumed with chasing that feeling that I had completely ignored my body´s screams for me to stop or the fact that the scale had not budged for months. Just like an addict, I was hooked on the feeling and I was prepared to pay any price for it.  

So should you give up on doing cardio all together?

As I mentioned before, being naturally active, as a part of your lifestyle, is wonderful and certainly has many health benefits but it can come in many other forms than running or spinning.

It can be taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It can be walking to or from work. It can be dancing, doing Yoga or Pilates and it definitely does not need to make you feel completely exhausted to be efficient.

That being said, if there is a cardio activity you love, do it! Just be mindful of listening to your body, backing off if you feel pain and keeping in mind that it has nothing to do with your fat loss journey.

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3457234

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4555089/

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15531670

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18296435

 (Replacing cardio with Fit Body Fresh Mind has completely transformed my physical and mental health and given me the tools to listen to my body and to work WITH it instead of AGAINST it, and the results speak for themselves...)




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