Column – What? No Cardio?

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By Lara Thompson,
Personal Trainer and Owner of Pure Physique

Question: Most of the long-term health success stories I’ve heard seem to involve running. I enjoy being active but I hate running. I really like the idea that it’s a no-equipment no-excuses kind of workout, but every time my knees are swollen and sore, and I’m miserable. Do I really need to run to be healthy?

Answer: There are well-documented benefits of aerobic exercise for specific populations, such as those who are sedentary, obese, or have high blood pressure. For those who are untrained or unhealthy, incorporating aerobic, or “cardio” exercise will provide long-term improvement in some measurements of health. If you’re just starting out, walking at a brisk pace, enough to make you sweat, promotes both increased muscular strength and endurance, helps to release toxins that are stored in your tissues, burns calories, improves the function and efficiency of your heart, and lowers your blood pressure. But – and this is a big “but” – if you do it over and over again, the benefits quickly decrease.

Steady-state cardio – which ranges from walking to endurance running, swimming, and cycling – is a highly adaptive activity. Anyone new to running will remember how tough their first few runs were, but also that it didn’t take too long before it became easier. This is actually one of the more appealing things about running – how quickly we can become “good” at it! This physiological adaptation is essentially your body learning how to expend less energy to perform the same activity. But hang on, why am I saying this like it’s a bad thing? Well, unless your main goal is to run a marathon, running for the sake of running is actually not recommended.

Your heart has two different metabolic processes: aerobic, which require oxygen for fuel, and anaerobic, which do not require oxygen. Many people mistakenly believe that “doing cardio” works out your heart muscle, but what you’re really working is your slow-twitch muscle, only one of the three types of muscle fibres found in our bodies. You’re not effectively engaging the anaerobic process of your heart.

Focusing on the wrong type of exercise to the exclusion of other important areas can actually do you more harm than good. Recent studies have gone so far as to say that conventional cardio or long-distance running is one of the worst forms of exercise there is.

Negative Health Effects of Aerobic Training:
Chronic Inflammation and Elevated Cortisol – For both elite and recreational athletes (who may perform anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes of aerobic training only a few days a week), aerobic training has been shown to lead to chronic inflammation and elevated cortisol. Chronically elevated cortisol causes the body to store fat rather than burn it, and chronic inflammation is connected to fat gain, heart disease, insulin resistance and diabetes, asthma, arthritis, cancer, poor reproductive health, and stomach problems.

Cardio Doesn’t Help With Fat-Loss – While ‘doing cardio’ may yield weight-loss, it doesn’t do much to help with fat-loss. You might want to read that again… there’s a BIG difference! Aerobic training, performed regularly without resistance training, puts the body in a catabolic state. This is a hormonal environment that degrades muscle and spikes cortisol, so even though you’re burning calories, the deficit is rarely enough to offset the catabolism. While strength training may also elevate cortisol, it produces anabolic (muscle-building) hormones which negate the impact of the increased cortisol.

Things You Can Do Instead of Aerobic Exercise

1) Strength Training
– Builds muscle
– Burns fat
– Reduces cortisol and inflammation
– Improves body composition and aesthetics
Even if you enjoy and prefer endurance training, add strength training to lessen the negative effects.

2) High-Intensity Anaerobic Intervals
– Burns visceral and subcutaneous fat
– Improves conditioning. (If you still love running, try sprint-training. [Ex.5x200m] It doesn’t have the negative effects of steady-state aerobic training, and will actually improve your time on endurance runs.)
When you work out, try to push as hard as you can just a few times a week, and give your body plenty of time to recuperate. Don’t worry, “as hard as you can” is different for everyone. With interval training, if you’re out of shape you won’t be able to train very hard because lactic acid will quickly build up in your muscles and prevent you from over-stressing your body.

3) Take Probiotics and Antioxidants
These aid in lowering cortisol and detoxifying your body from the dietary and environmental pollutants that cause inflammation. Try supplementing with vitamin E, selenium, and zinc, and eating fruits high in antioxidants, such as berries. Creatine and Omega-3s will also reduce inflammation.

I think the most important thing you wrote is that you “hate running.” Being physically active is supposed to be about more than just weight-loss and body-image. It’s supposed to be about participating in enjoyable, healthful activities which you can share with friends and family. If you hate running and it hurts your knees, why would you continue to do it? Go for a walk, ride a bike, rollerblade; try a fitness class like kickboxing, Tabata, or Zumba; or bust out of your comfort zone and try a “Women on Weights” workshop … There’s a huge variety of activities available locally, all designed to improve your overall health, and have fun!

Have a question for Lara? Contact her at lara@purephysique.ca

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