Is Cardio Really That Effective for Weight Loss?
Spring is finally here (although you wouldn’t know from the weather we’ve been having), and everyone is looking to get leaner for the warm weather. This means it’s time to start doing more cardio for weight loss and cutting your calories way back, right?
I’d like to challenge the common belief that doing a lot of cardiovascular exercise is the best way to improve your overall fitness and to reduce body fat. But first I want to update you on how my training has been going for the Sporting Life 10K Run … which is TOMORROW! I had planned on posting more updates on my training during the week, but it’s been busy… so, better late than never. (See my previous post for more details)
First of all, here is a short video I made while on a ‘run’ a week ago:
In the video I mentioned that I was going to be running with Giselle and her runner friends the next day (which was last weekend)… well I think I earned some bragging rights by keeping up with them for a 9 kilometer jog (much of it uphill), completing it under 55 minutes. I know this isn’t really a fast time, but considering that I am not a runner, I’m pleased with it. At least I’m certain I’ll finish the race in under an hour.
However, my goal in doing this event (besides supporting a great charity) is to demonstrate that you can be fit, conditioned, and athletic enough to keep up with runners without necessarily training like one. If you follow a good strength training and interval training program, there is really no reason for performing excessive amounts of cardio. In fact, as I will explain, there may reason not to.
Too many people are running themselves into the ground doing hours of cardio for weight loss and to improve their health and fitness. However, more and more research is mounting which clearly demonstrates that long, slow, steady-state cardiovascular activity is actually counterproductive to achieving these goals. Not only is excessive cardiovascular exercise relatively ineffective, but it may actually do more harm than good. I realize that this is a bold statement that flies in the face of conventional wisdom within the mainstream fitness industry, but this article will explain why this is in fact the truth.
Too Much Cardio Can Hurt Your Heart
A recent study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, that examined the heart health of a group of men who had been part of a national or Olympic team in distance running or rowing showed that half of these lifelong endurance athletes exhibited evidence of heart muscle scarring. And now a new study (published in the journal Circulation) using laboratory rats also demonstrates a direct link between prolonged cardiovascular exercise and heart damage, similar to with the human endurance athletes.
The research shows that over time strenuous cardiovascular exercise can damage your heart. Admittedly, unless you’re engaged in high-level endurance training this information should not overly concern you, and you certainly shouldn’t use it as an excuse to avoid exercising at all! However, there are many other reasons to avoid low intensity cardiovascular training.
Cardio Can Waste Your Muscle
Trying to lose weight by performing long periods of cardio may actually also lead to the wasting of muscle tissue (especially in combination with a low calorie diet). This is something we really do NOT want to happen! Muscle is the body’s fat burning furnace. Lean muscle tissue is responsible for maintaining a healthy metabolism, preventing injuries, improving mobility and performance, as well as helping you develop a toned, athletic-looking physique.
Because excess cardio can metabolize both fat and muscle, it can result in what I call the “skinny-fat” physique. You may lose some weight, but your body will still look and feel soft, flabby, and weak. Also consider the fact that over-doing it with aerobic exercise can increase oxidative stress and lead to elevated cortisol levels, resulting in a depleted immune system and more abdominal fat storage.
Long Duration Cardio Can Also Waste Your Time
In the fast paced society that we live in few people have the time to spend several hours each week doing long, slow, boring cardio workouts. In fact, “I don’t have the time” is one of the most popular excuses for not exercising! The truth is that most people are far more likely to participate in an exercise program if the time commitment is not as great, which is fine because unless you are an endurance athlete long duration cardio is totally unnecessary.
Excess cardio can put extra stress on your adrenal glands, which may lead to fatigue, anxiety, depression, insomnia, reduced immunity, and inability to concentrate. If your adrenals are compromised this can also make it harder to lose body fat.
What if there was a way to get in great shape in less time, without all the potential negative effects of cardio? There is!
To Get Lean You Need to Get Intense
Now, I’m not implying that you should never perform any form of cardiovascular exercise. On the contrary! Going for a walk, a swim, a bike ride, or playing a pick-up game of basketball with your friends are all healthy activities to participate in. If you are a beginner, moderate cardio exercise may be a good way to gradually increase your activity level. Cardiovascular exercise really only becomes a problem when it’s over-done. But there are safer and more effective ways to get in great shape and improve your fitness.
Brief, intense resistance training (strength training) workouts are superior to cardio training in a number of ways. Strength training, anaerobic exercise has the benefits of increasing your lean tissue, improving your bone density, regulating your blood sugar, and increasing your metabolism over an extended period of time. The higher the intensity of the strength training session, the longer the metabolism remains elevated, and the more total calories burned.
In addition to strength training, there are certain forms of “cardio-type” training that are very effective. You just need to make your cardio workouts shorter, faster, and more intense! The solution is High-Intensity Interval Training (also referred to as HIIT).
HIIT involves brief, intense sessions of cardiovascular exercise, lasting only 15 to 20 minutes. It consists of a series of short, high intensity bursts and longer low intensity intervals. For example, after every 1 or 2 minutes of low intensity jogging you would perform a 30 second fast run, and then back to jogging… alternating these intervals for the entire workout. This type of cardio is FAR more effective for fat loss. For evidence of this, compare the body of an elite sprinter to that of a high-level marathon runner. Sprinters are lean, muscular, and athletic looking, as opposed to the drawn-out, unhealthy appearance of many long-distance runners.
In addition, studies now show that HIIT causes an increase in the release of HGH (Human Growth Hormone) in your body. HGH is a vital hormone that is KEY for physical strength, health and longevity. Plus it burns fat like crazy! It is important to note that with both strength training and interval training, the key is intensity.
A colleague of mine, Jay Horn, sums up my opinion on steady state cardio in this short “tongue-in-cheek” video:
I believe it’s time to re-evaluate the obsession with cardio in the fitness industry, and consider more effective strategies for fat loss.
On that note, wish me luck in the run tomorrow! I’ll let you know how it goes.