Some will tell you nothing less than one hour per day. Some will tell you that a 45-minute session is acceptable, but you must do one in the AM and one in the PM. Others will tell you that you don’t need cardio at all, and will actually scoff at you if you do engage in any cardiovascular training. And then there are some who fall in the middle; they’ll tell you 30 minutes 3-5 days per week is acceptable.
Who are we to trust? This fitness game is damn confusing, isn’t it?
Before you embark on designing your cardio plan it’s helpful to know the benefits that cardiovascular training provides.
- It strengthens the heart. We want strong hearts because the heart is just another muscle, and if we’re looking to make all our other muscles beefy why not make the heart beefy? Right? Kind of. We want a strong heart because a strong heart is efficient, which means it doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood through our bodies, both at rest and when we’re engaging in physical activity. This makes exercise easier! Almost. Not only that, a weak and over-worked heart is more susceptible to heart attacks, so show your heart some love and put a little effort into making it strong.
- It reduces blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, puts us at risk for strokes, artery damage and disease, aneurysms, and heart failure. IF YOU DON’T DO CARDIO YOU’LL DIE. Okay that’s a little dramatic. But if you have high blood pressure, try incorporating some light cardiovascular activity into your day and you will quickly notice a difference!
- It reduces stress. Ever heard of “runner’s high?” It’s not caused by smoking a joint and going for a run, but rather these little things called ENDORPHINS. They are the happy pills of the brain; during times of pain or stress they are released by various parts of the body and are gratefully received by the brain. They often create a euphoric feeling and make the uncomfortable thing we may be experiencing not so….uncomfortable. Moderate to vigorous forms of exercise can trigger the release of endorphins, even in short bouts, so get out there for a brisk 15-minute walk and those endorphins will be flowin’ in no time.
- It reduces LDL-cholesterol (the BAD cholesterol) and raises HDL-cholesterol (the GOOD cholesterol). Wait…isn’t all cholesterol bad? Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol does have its place in contributing to our happy and healthy lives. HDL-cholesterol scours our blood streams looking for the eeeevil LDL cholesterol and removes it!
- It reduces body fat. I hesitate to include this here, because there are tons of other things that are more important to fat loss than exercise, but cardiovascular training does have its place here. In short, cardio is helpful at creating that caloric deficit that is required to lose fat, at least in the beginning stages. We’ll touch more on this below.
Now that we know all the good things cardio does for our bodies, we next have to take our goals into consideration. Are you looking to lose fat? Build muscle? Train for a specific sport? Relieve stress? Cardiovascular training has its place for all of these goals, but the role it plays differs greatly.
Let’s start with losing fat. Losing fat and looking good is one of the main reasons that people begin an exercise program, so it only seems appropriate to include it here. As I mentioned above, cardio creates the caloric deficit that’s needed to lose body fat. Weight loss, in its most simple form, is a balance of calories in vs. calories out. Take in less calories than you expend and you will lose fat.
A 1lb-per-week weight loss equals a deficit of 3500 calories. Spread out over 7 days, that’s 500 less calories per day. You could eat 500 less calories than your body expends each day and not exercise. OR you could consume 100-200 less calories per day and create the remaining deficit through exercise.
When you’re just starting out an exercise program you will likely burn more calories doing cardio than you will weight training, and so including some moderate cardiovascular training into your day seems logical, right? I say “likely” here because many things come in to play when determining how many calories you burn during a particular activity, but IN GENERAL this is how things go.
If your goal is to relieve stress then, judging by our endorphin scenario above, cardio would be a welcome addition to your exercise regimen! Activities can range from a brisk walk to a light jog to a full-on sprint or powerful bike ride; many forms of moderate to vigorous cardiovascular training will trigger the release of endorphins.
Now if you’re looking to build muscle, cardio comes into play a little differently here. If you’re looking to “tone up” (ladies!!!!) cardio isn’t going to hinder your progress. But for the many men and women who are looking to really develop their physiques by building muscle, cardio can hinder their progress. Whereas losing weight requires a calorie deficit, building muscle requires a calorie surplus. WE NEED EXTRA CALORIES FOR THE BUILDING! (I said that in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice in my head.)
By doing cardio and creating a calorie deficit, we are taking energy away from the processes that require it for muscle growth. Now my favourite response to this is just eat more. It IS possible to build muscle and engage in cardiovascular activities as long as you’re eating enough, but it may not be at the same level as if you didn’t do any cardio. Many of those who are serious about building their bodies will skip cardio altogether.
This is where we get into the slightly controversial area. There are sports that are hindered by cardio. Bodybuilding, as I just mentioned. A friend of mine who participates in Olympic weightlifting has told me that cardio can negatively affect the sport. At first thought, you may think that those who are engaging in these activities are missing out on all the health benefits that cardio provides. But that’s not really the case.
Athletes, and even just regular individuals, who really know how to lift weights can do so in a way that keeps their heart rate elevated for an extended period of time, thus stimulating the positive side effects such as a stronger heart and reduced blood pressure.
Some of the more technical lifts and certain training methods really do make it possible for a weight training session to count as a cardiovascular training session. Maybe not so much in the “doing cardio to lose weight” kind of way, but in the whole “I want a stronger heart so I don’t have a heart attack when I’m 40” picture, it can work. With that being said, many individuals who are still new to strength training will still benefit from a separate cardio session.
For those of us who are looking to lose some weight, become healthier, or just improve our general fitness levels, it seems like cardiovascular training is a pretty good thing. And you can’t get too much of a good thing, right?
WRONG. So very wrong.
You can definitely do too much cardio, and I see this often. There’s a girl who’s at the gym pretty much every time I’m there. Let’s call her Sally. Depending what time I get to the gym at, Sally’s workout is already underway or she’s just starting. And when I leave, Sally is still working out. Keep in mind here that my workouts typically aren’t short. Between a 15 minute warm-up, a 45min-1hour lifting session, the occasional HIIT session, and upwards of 15 minutes for stretching and foam rolling, I can be at the gym for up to two hours.
Sally isn’t taking lots of rest breaks between her sets. She’s not spending extra time foam rolling or stretching. She’s not even being the annoying chatterbox at the gym, using exercise time as social time. No. Sally is on the elliptical the entiiiiiiiire time.
THIS is a case of too much cardio. While I am a firm believer that in addition to exercise science your interests and preferences should be taken into consideration when partaking in an exercise program, sometimes too much is just too much. I highly doubt Sally actually ENJOYS spending the better portion of her morning on that god-awful machine. I say this because on the days that she is just beginning her “workout” when I arrive to the gym, she is always stepping on the scale first. Which makes me think that this is in an effort to lose weight. Which couldn’t be more counterproductive!
Exercise is stress to the body. It’s good stress, but it’s still stress. And if you subject your body to continued stress, regardless of the type, it’s going to respond in the way nature would dictate. Mainly, it will send your hormones out of whack. It will release cortisol, which can cause us to hold onto the weight we currently have or even gain weight. And girls like Sally get discouraged by this and think they need to do even MORE cardio. It’s a sad cycle.
Unless Sally is eating a hefty amount, she’s likely going to be at a veeeery large calorie deficit from all that cardio. Which again impacts the hormones. More weight gain, increased irritability, difficulty sleeping, cessation of the menstrual cycle. Yes, there CAN be too much of a good thing.
We need to find a balance between not doing anything and doing too much. While the optimal amount depends on your goals, Health Canada provides a pretty good starting point if you’re a little unsure as to where to start. They recommend 150 minutes per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. If you’ve been inactive for a little while work up to 10 minute increments a couple times a day. If you’re a little on the fitter side aim for 30 continuous minutes. You should definitely be breathing heavy and breaking a sweat during these sessions, but if someone asks you how you’re feeling you should be able to respond in sentences. Short sentences if you’ve been at it for awhile 😉
With my IT band consistently giving me problems that make running difficult I haven’t been dedicating as much time to cardio as I’d like. I really enjoy a nice run, a tough sweat sesh on a spin bike, and sometimes even a grueling 30 minutes on the Stairmaster. But I’ve been focusing more on building my strength and working on some little issues, so cardio has fallen a bit by the wayside. I did however have a wonderful cardio-filled weekend last weekend! A 25-km bike ride with Jordan on Saturday and then a 3 hour hike through North Vancouver with a friend on Sunday gave me a much-needed endorphin boost and I know it made my heart happy.
What are your favourite forms of cardio? What are your thoughts on the great cardio debate? I’d love to hear them!