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Cardio or cardiovascular endurance training is one of those forms of exercise which most believe they must do for many reasons ranging from getting leaner and developing a strong heart, to burning extra calories and body fat, or that panacea to living a longer life. Cultivating the growth, improvement and maintenance of structure, your physical structure, which refers to muscle, bone, tendon, ligament, and all of the tissues and fluids that make up our bodies is no easy task given how much information on this subject grabs our attention every day. After years of working with many folks, with extremely varying needs, it seems weighing risk and benefit are ever present as we train our clients. The art of personal training requires these key factors in order to leverage the time and effort spent training. For years I thought I needed to do cardio, often, or train in some way, very often, in order to become healthy and strong. I realize, many years and valuable lessons later, that less effort, and understanding some basic factors can go a lot further towards reaching our goals. Like anything that requires effort, what you get out of training is a reflection what you put in, and theres no question that commitment and laser focussed discipline are required if your going to save time, money, and of course, improve your structure.
Lots of folks spend a lot of time doing cardio as a way to manage stress, clear their minds or fulfill a doctors request be more active. It sounds reasonable enough as it’s technically free and can be done anywhere, in any number of ways which makes it really convenient. When something is free, we rarely question its merits the way we do when we have to invest or pay for it. Investing time is quite expensive for all of us, especially if what’s pro-ported to be so beneficial, may do more damage than good for many of us if inappropriately prescribed. This is because most people assume exercise should be aggressive, stressful and induce soreness or pain while leaving you exhausted to be effective. I can honestly say from my own personal experience, and that of my clients over many years, that cardio exercise is not for everyone, even though everyone alive has a functioning cardiovascular system. Nor does it always enhance or increase our ability to maintain structure and produce positive returns on our invested time. Assuming so, is yet another one size fits all approach, and individuals tend to have varying abilities to adapt to the stress of cardio exercise.
The reported benefits of aerobic activities are everywhere with images of fit looking athletes to remind us that if we want to look like them, and possibly feel the way they appear to feel, we need to do more cardio, train harder, cut back on or increase calories or modify our macronutrient intakes. This is not an attempt to refute all that has been researched around cardiovascular training. Actually, its more of an attempt at creating some context around its use. Although I don’t have proof, I’m guessing that most research in this area is based on the assumption that seemingly healthy individuals would benefit from cardio. In a healthy functioning metabolism that gets adequate sleep, eats on a schedule, is well hydrated and lives with low stress it is possible that the catabolic nature of cardio would have little negative effect. Yet the vast majority of people doing cardio often don’t fall under this category. For many of the latter, cardio can slow down or even inhibit goal attainment as Ive seen time and again with my clients over many years. This is due to the catabolic nature of raising ones heart rate over an extended period of time. The time and effort that many invest in cardio use for attempts at reducing their waist size is very costly for our bodies metabolically. Any body fat loss from doing cardio is always coupled with muscle loss, as well as muscle energy depletion, which is glycogen loss. This in turn creates a stress response in the body, which is a normal part of how we respond to stress. Exercise efforts should deliver the improvement and enhancement of our structures while minimally taxing the components required for tissue maintenance and a healthy cellular environment.
Everyone has varying degrees of tolerance to physical stress as well as metabolic efficiency so what grants results for one person very often does nothing for the next person and may actually do damage for many other folks. Our exercise efforts will challenge our bodies, and therefore our internal environments where our cells will need to respond, adapt to, and continue providing their respective roles in keeping us going and maintaining structure through homeostasis. (Ray Peat Ph.D, 2012) This process of identifying the tolerance thresholds in each client has proven beneficial for almost all of the many varying goals our clients present with. Many have pre-existing physical health concerns to account for and the risks can often outweigh the benefits of doing cardio for many individuals. All of us come into an exercise setting with both strengths and weaknesses which may become more pronounced once we start challenging our systems for any length of time. Muscle and fascial tissue tension generating capabilities and weaknesses or long term strength patterns can greatly impact our exercise experience. Inefficient neuromuscular strength can greatly reduce our desired outcomes from any form of exercise or physical movement (Greg Roskopf, 2013). If these mechanisms exist in a stressed or undernourished system, usually, we dont know about it. If, for example, a person with compromised glycogen stores (low muscle energy stores) does cardio it may only add to the overall stress of their daily lifestyle, rather than do any good. A case in which risk clearly outweighs benefit.
Context is key, so let’s see if we can hash out some of the confusions before drawing any conclusions. Can doing cardiovascular exercise be beneficial? Sure. Should everyone just do it as often as they can? Not really, but theres always room to modify a program to better suit a persons specific needs which sometimes requires avoiding it all together. Depending on who you ask your likely to get different answers as to whether or not you should do cardio and theres likely some truth to most of it, but again, context is key, and it always depends on the person in front of you. If the chosen activity causes pain, maybe its not for you and your current tolerance threshold. Seek some advice to figure out options that your body will agree with. Often its just a matter of modifying the speed, intensity, and timing and your doctor is the best person to ask questions of if you have health concerns to account for. This is not to discourage you from staying active nor contesting any researched benefits of “cardiovascular activity” but what I’d like to you ask you to consider the fact that cardiovascular activity occurs, all the time, 24/7, since you were born including now as you read this piece. Cardio as we speak of it in popular culture refers to treadmills, bikes, and elyptical machines in a gym, high intensity classes or getting your heart rate up to a higher speed for a set length of time. The term cardio is just the short form for cardiovascular training, as its often used. Cardiovascular refers to a physiological process that is required to stay alive, so its natural or logical to assume that we must train it to maintain or improve its function. Training your cardiovascular system is very different from stressing it, and if your like I was for years, we often push harder thinking it has to be better or that we’ll attain our goals faster. How we pursue the process of improving or strengthening our cardiovascular system differs from person to person and usually should change periodically and have planned periods of rest if you desire participating in this sort of exercise.
Consider also, that cardio exercise may be a metabolic stimulant for some, and a stressor for others. This depends on a persons history, their current state of health, how busy they are and how they eat and manage their lifestyle. What is health really and where does cardio fit in to offer benefit, & if that’s possible, at what point does it become unhealthy to do? The cellular environment is dictated by our daily choices. How we eat, sleep, work, manage stress, and live on a day to day have an extremely heavy influence on our body and its ability to adapt to the way we live and this includes our exercise choices (J&J Rubin, 2015) I’ve definitely been that guy who works hard and trains hard despite my system needing a break. I think we all do this in one way or another from time to time. Taking a day or two or five off is never regressive, it cultivates recovery. If your tired, forcing yourself through cardio because you think you need to work off a bottle of wine or a piece of cake, will not deliver what you expect. If your forcing your way through it, cardio will inhibit reaching your exercise goals and even more so, if sleep & nutrition are compromised and rarely pain any attention. This seems to be the case for almost everyone. Many choose to partake in cardio because they think it will make them skinny or ripped which unfortunately, is not a barometer for better health. Health or healthy pursuits are often convenient validations as we are not really sure that this is what we are achieving from our efforts. We tend to hope that effort alone is beneficial as long as we stay consistent, and consistency tends to be met with peer encouragement, even if it hurts or we suffer through the process. When folks talk about how good they feel doing it, or that old adage “the runners high” is really an adrenalin high as adrenalin and cortisol spikes last long after we are done with exercise and everyone loves how increased adrenalin feels. This process is not without consequences of its own and will be covered at a later date. Consistency will undoubtedly illicit change, however, whether or not the change is progressive leaves room for more questions which we will attempt to cover in subsequent articles as well.
Changing body composition and strengthening the heart is obtainable from most forms of exercise particularly if diet and lifestyle factors are dialed in and consistently managed along with identifying stressors that are part of a persons daily experience. Our metabolisms respond well when we make an effort toward matching our activities with how we are living and nutrition plays a huge role in our response to daily stress, including stress that is brought on by exercise. Approaching exercise curiously to gain a better understanding how we function, individually, can open the door to obtaining a stronger, healthier, feel good version of yourself. This is all based on the individual and how we approach exercise prescription when working with our clients.
- Peat, Ray. (2012). Regeneration-Degeneration; Types of inflammation change with aging. Retrieved February 28, 2017, from www.raypeat.com, http://raypeat.com/articles/articles/regeneration-degeneration.shtml
- Greg Roskopf, (2013). Muscle Activation Techniques seminars. The foot. www.muscleactivation.com
- EastWest healing and performance. (2015) Fight Fatigue with Food seminars. www.eastwesthealing.com