My opinion on cardiovascular exercise has changed drastically in the years since I’ve become involved in fitness. For those of you familiar with my backstory, I was once the queen of all cardio bunnies – I was the Queen B, y’all! Starting in middle school, I was regularly running for an hour followed immediately with two hours of swimming almost everyday. I was burning through 15 miles a day either on the treadmill or outdoors by the time I hit high school. While I initially did it because I wanted to be a faster runner, my goals quickly deteriorated into “do it for the calorie burn, baby!”, all the while not seeing any visible changes in my physique.
For some of you, your beliefs on cardio to sculpt a rockin’ bod will be different from mine. Many of you think that you need to do 45 minutes of cardio day in and day out in order to be lean. A lot of you probably have once said something along the lines of, “Oh my God, that ice cream was so good; now it’s time to go run it off,” or, “I totally deserve that cream cheese bagel after biking for 30 minutes.” Cool story, brah. How’s that working out for you?
Today I want to share with you my personal philosophy on cardio. Because it pains me to see and hear about others – especially women, you elliptical worshippers, you! – who are disillusioned with cardio as the Holy Grail of the Ultimate Bikini Body.
Before I go on, though, a point of clarification:
I am referring only to aesthetic-oriented, steady-state cardio.
For all you performance goal folks and those interested in cardio for general health, shoo. This article isn’t for you 😉
(False) Reasons for Cardio
1. Cardio gets me lean.
Okay, I can understand the thinking here. Cardio burns calories, so obviously, the more you do, the better for you, right? Not so fast. The calorie counter on that treadmill you’re on spits out a grossly overestimated number. Honestly, it kind of makes me sick. I once had a machine tell me that I burned over 2,000 calories in an hour. Yeah, okay. And I’m Adriana Lima.
I think you’ll find yourself gravely disappointed to learn that the energy you expend plugging away at the hamster wheel is much, much less than you’ve been led to believe. You won’t get ripped abs; you won’t lose that arm flab. Sorry, buster. Not happening. Not today and not ever.
A recent study found that it takes an average of 86 hours’ worth of aerobic exercise to lose 1kg , and a meta-analysis pointed out that cardio itself is not an effective weight loss therapy . Is that worth it to you?
Watch this enlightening video below to put it into perspective.
2. Cardio is a great lower body workout.
I have girlfriends who only perform upper body resistance training because, as they say, “Oh, I do so much with my legs when I run anyway.” Please show me a study that suggests that endurance cardio has the same physiological effects on your body as does lifting weights. Squats and deadlifts – do they do the same thing for your butt as pounding the pavement for miles?
I want to pull up this picture again to highlight the fact that I did next to no cardio to get to this point. Just a few years ago, I had no butt whatsoever. It just wasn’t there. But I learned how to squat, and squat I did – back squats, front squats, split squats, Bulgarian split squats, and now goblet squats, too. I had someone tell me that I had a black girl’s booty on an Asian body. Say what now? I guess that’s what squatting will do for ya.
3. Cardio is sufficient exercise.
I can kind of understand if you want to supplement your other physical activities – lifting weights or yoga, for example – with a little bit of cardio on the side if it makes you feel good. I can tolerate it. But if you’re going to pick one form of exercise, it should be weight lifting. Men and women alike.
Why? Well, cardio is a waste of time. There are much better things I can be doing during the hour that I’ve now lost. Also, it’s inefficient and it doesn’t do much. See point 1. If you only have 30 minutes a day to work out and you’re attempting to accomplish Operation Sexy, then hit the weight room.
4. Cardio as compensatory behavior.
This one is the unhealthiest and most dangerous of all, in my opinion. It’s too easy to become trapped into this mentality of cardio as punishment. If you have a yummy feast of some sort coming up, you peddle away for harder and longer at the bike in the days beforehand because you want to create a calorie buffer. And then after you’ve indulged in more slices of pecan pie (drool!) than you initially planned, you try to redeem yourself by hitting up the elliptical the next day.
This makes me nervous. Really, it does. And I see it happening far too often amongst laypeople and especially amongst competitors. Such behavior creates a negative association between exercise and poor eating, and then before you know it, you’ve slipped into a cycle of cardio, eat, cardio, eat. I’ve been in this situation and it doesn’t have a happy ending. It only reinforces bad habits and oftentimes exacerbates them. I found that my “indulgences” grew bigger and bigger, and I eventually came to think of cardio as something I had to do begrudgingly. You also start making excuses as to why it’s okay to gorge on that extra junk food. It’s not okay.
I think most people perform cardio for any one of the four reasons above. Two exceptions I’ve found have been the following:
1. You really, really enjoy cardio. You love pedaling away on the bike. Something about lacing up your running shoes as you head out the door gets your heart racing with excitement. If you can inherently find joy in what you’re doing, then by all means, keep doing it. Also, what planet are you from?
2. You’re ridiculously tiny. If you’re very light and you’ve been nailing your nutrition for a while now and you’ve noticed that your progress has slowed down markedly, then maybe it’s time to sprinkle a little bit of cardio in there. There aren’t many of you who fall into this category – especially because most people don’t know what a proper diet looks like.
(3.) I know I said two exceptions, but I guess this counts as a pseudo-exception since I’m half-joking. If you actually want to go for that flat-butt, soft, doughy look – I mean if you find this sexy and irresistible – then alright. Go on with your ways.
So how in the world do you get lean? My approach is as follows:
- First off, you absolutely must, must, must have a solid nutrition plan. Don’t come complaining to me that everything I’ve said up to this point is a lie when you haven’t kept an honest food log and you can’t tell me how much you’re eating. “I’ve tried everything!” is a common excuse that I hear. Well, no, you probably haven’t. Increase your protein intake, stop eating cream puffs so often, and throw some fish oil in there.
- Lift heavy weights. Heavy is a relative term, I know, but I will immediately discredit you as a knowledgeable “fitness buff” if you mention “pink weights” and “toning” in the same sentence. That’s old news – and it’s wrong news at that. And stick to the main, compound movements: squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, chin ups, etc.
- Next in the order of importance is some type of metabolic work. This includes things like intervals, sprints, and complexes. These have a way of making curse words fly out of your mouth as you wonder if it’s possible for your heart to physically burst out of your chest. I actually do enjoy these workouts in a sick sort of way. Oh, the pain!
- Last comes traditional cardio. Mehh.
The all-encompassing factor that you must have in order to be successful in your fat loss endeavors, however, is consistency. You won’t get anywhere without it. You may have the most perfect diet in the world (whatever that is), but if you’re only following it three days of the week, then it doesn’t mean much.
Too Long? Read This.
Former Queen B says: Cardio sucks. Lift instead.
1. Friedenreich CM, et al. Adiposity changes after a 1-year aerobic exercise intervention among postmenopausal women: a randomized controlled trial. Int J Obes (Lond). 2011;35:427-435
2. Thorogood A, et al. Isolated aerobic exercise and weight loss: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Med. 2011 Aug;124(8):747-55