Hate Cardio? You’re Probably Doing It Wrong

I love feeling the burn as much as the next gal, but I just cannot stand cardio. Unfortunately, it’s a necessary evil. All the fitness lore says – you have to mix it up. Challenge your body. Intervals. Cross training. Blah blah blah. Well, I’d just as soon travel back in time to be tortured on a medieval rack while undergoing primitive dental surgery. So, remind me again why I showed up at the gym today?


The Importance of Pacing

Hey, I’ll go run on a treadmill or ride a bike or swim some laps – no problem. That’s because in those situations, I set the pace.

I’m talking about love-hating (most mostly hating) group-led cardio, like HIIT at Barre Code (High Intensity Interval Training) which I force myself to attend once a week. This is where self-imposed peer pressure has me trying to keep pace with all the skinny girls, who actually seem to ENJOY this torture. Given the option to bounce, they jump. Meanwhile, I’m over there wondering how long I can just stand in place before someone notices.

Now, you’d think I’d just have to work at it more and build up a stamina. Except that’s not really 100% accurate. Stamina and endurance are something you mostly build from long sustained periods of continuous moderate activity. Cardio and interval training is more about how well your heart can get revved up to pump oxygenated blood to your super-active muscles, and how quickly it can chill out again between sets.

For a person who is overweight, this is already vastly more difficult. Your body is a lot larger inside than it may seem to you on the outside. Shocking Fact: For every 1 pound of weight you gain, your body produces 70 freaking miles of blood vessels. So jacks and burpees alone are not going to make your cardiovascular system stronger. Losing weight is an essential (if not THE MOST essential) part of that process.

Fortunately for people like me, strength and body resistance training is preferable for boosting metabolism and increasing fat burn throughout the day. When you finish a cardio session, that’s it. Your body shuts off. When you finish a strengthening session, your body is left with a debris field of muscle damage to rebuild – and THAT requires energy (coming in the form of the calories you continue to burn for HOURS afterward).

So what’s the real skinny on cardio? Is it beneficial, and if so, how much?

The Benefits

First off – a regular amount of aerobic exercise during your weekly workout routine is still a great thing. It’s good to get your blood moving. When your heart works harder, large doses of immune cells and oxygenated blood cells sweep throughout your body tissues – repairing damage and generally making you feel more active and alert.

Over time, doing regular cardio will also strengthen your heart muscle, making each pump more effective. Not only does this make you less fatigued during workouts, but also throughout the day. We all hear about how marathon runners have a resting heart rate of like 35 beats per minute. That’s because each one of those beats is worth two of ours.

Isn’t It Ironic?

On the flip side, as with any exercise, TOO MUCH IS NOT A GOOD THING.

1. Once your heart and lungs can’t keep up with the demand, your tissues may be deprived of fully oxygenated blood and can actually begin to break down and die.

2. Your body freaks the F out when you are doing high intensity cardio. It thinks you are being chased by a wild boar or something. Hence, you get a ton of the fight or flight hormones, including cortisol – which is notoriously a cause of weight gain.

3. Part of the stress response is inflammation, which can actually damage your heart vessels or tighten the tubes in your lungs. In marathon runners, long-term damage has been seen. One study pegged them at a 7 times higher risk for having heart problems than the average person. Cue Alanis Morissette.

Now that you’re terrified – let me assure you: If you’re just trying to lose weight and get in shape, chances are you’re not even doing the kind of cardio that can actually damage and kill you. So don’t use this as an excuse to never do another jumping jack again.

Find Your Zone

The point is, you may be doing the kind of cardio that no longer benefits you, and that’s where you have to listen to your body. If you need a visual, you can even track your heart rate. Your “max” is based on several factors like age and BMI. You may know from reading those charts they stick on the treadmills that there’s an ideal zone to be in. Once you get past the max, you’re doing more harm than good.

A quick way to calculate your max heart rate is 220 – your age. 

From there, you will calculate (or ask Siri) 90% of that value, 80%, 70%, etc. to determine the heart rate that puts you in each of Zones. (Example: If max = 190, then 90% of 190 is 171.)

Zone 1: 90% of Max – Danger Zone

  • Feels Like: Hard to breathe, muscles about to fail.
  • Recommended only for young, fit people.
  • Burns only carbs. 
  • Time: Five minutes max

Zone 2: 80% of Max – Pushing It Zone

  • Feels Like: Heavy breathing
  • Recommended only for generally fit people. 
  • Burns almost only carbs. 
  • Time: 2-10 minutes max

Zone 3: 70% of Max – Optimum Fat Burning Zone

  • Feels Like: Moderate to hard breathing
  • Recommended for intermediate to generally fit people.
  • Burns equal amount fat and carbs
  • Time: 10-40 minutes

Zone 4: 60% of Max – Warming Up

  • Feels Like: Light difficulty breathing
  • Recommended for beginners or for warm-ups
  • Burns mostly fat
  • Time: If this is your only exercise, 40-80 minutes for effect. Otherwise, just as a warmup and cool down period.

(Disclaimer: If you have any kind of cardiovascular or other health problems, you clearly should go see a doctor before doing any of this!)

So remember, don’t let peer pressure push your past your limit. The zone of benefit is going to be different for each person at the gym, so it’s totally fine if you have to drop out of that set of mountain climbers before the girl next to you.  You might have just worked harder than she has in less reps, simply because of your age and current BMI.

130 BPM? That’s It? Shoot, That’s like Four Pushups!

Remember, your age may give you a 70% Zone Heart Rate of 130, but that rate is going to be reached a lot differently depending on your body weight. If right now it takes only ten jumping jacks for you to reach Zone 3, don’t worry. Once you lose weight, you’ll be like all the skinny chicks next to you – who are leaping and grinning through A-Jacks and probably only in Zone 4. With weight loss and increased stamina, you’ll be able to do more work per pump.

Willpower isn’t what keeps you going after you want to stop. It’s what keeps you going until you absolutely need to.

High-Intensity Interval Training

As with most things in the fitness world, try to ask yourself: “What Would Caveman Me Do?” Our primitive ancestors were hunter-gatherers, which meant short bursts of high intensity activity followed by lots of rest. Just like a car, most of the power is used in accelerating and braking. Once you’re in cruise control, all you’re doing is wearing out the struts and putting on miles.

Also keep in mind that your active sets need not be the same duration as the people around you. For instance, if a class instructor is leading 2 minutes seconds of jacks and you feel ready to keel over after a minute, take that short break you need to catch your breath and then get back in it. You’ve just divided one burst into two bursts – each peaking at your maximum effort. That’s two for the price of one!

Knowing that your best effort is truly the best thing for you, cardio moves into a much more psychologically friendly realm. Just like with diet – the goal is not to torture yourself, but to understand yourself and what truly works best for you.



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