You probably don’t look forward to doing cardio. In fact, you might be reading this as you eye the treadmill and think about how you can get out of it today. Far too often, we see cardiovascular exercise as the demon of fitness, as something you get over with quickly, before you leave the gym and FINALLY get a snack or protein shake. Women, especially, fearing “bulking up”, do exclusively cardio-oriented activities, to promote “fat loss” and “toning” instead. But cardio doesn’t have to be running, sweating it out in a boot camp class, or anything that makes you miserable. As with your resistance training, cardio can be tailored to your fitness needs and goals and turned into an activity you can’t wait for!
First, let’s address the demon, and why cardio is so important for a well-rounded program. We should add cardio to our workout routine because a healthy heart is one that is properly exercised. The heart is made up of muscle, and how do we develop stronger muscles? We push them to work harder. Major benefits of cardiovascular exercise include:
1. Increased cardiac muscle mass (heart gains!)
2. Increased stroke volume (amount of blood pumped per heartbeat)
3. Increased disposal of metabolic wastes (nitrogen, CO2, phosphates, sulfates)
4. Faster diffusion rates of oxygen and fuel into muscle (sending air to your muscles faster, allowing you to work harder during resistance training, and to progressively overload the intensity and duration of future cardio workouts)
5. Increased carbohydrate sparing (thus greater use for fat as fuel)
6. Increase in mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell!)
7. Increase in cell regulatory mechanisms of metabolism (more efficient use of energy by your body)
8. Increased fat oxidation (the breaking down of fatty acids)
9. Increased expression of fatigue-resistance slow twitch muscle fibers (these are the muscles used for endurance events, like running or cycling)
(Joyner, M.J. and Coyle, E.F. (2008). “Endurance Exercise Performance: The Physiology of Champions”. Journal of Applied Physiology, 586 (1), 35-44. ; Pavlik, G., Major, Z., Varga-Pintér, B., Jeserich, M., & Kneffel, Z. (2010). “The Athlete’s Heart Part I (Review)”. Acta Physiologica Hungarica, 97(4), 337-353.)
So now that you know the benefit of cardio, consider why you don’t like doing it. “It’s hard.” “It’s boring.” We’ve established that cardio is vital to an integrated training program. Now it becomes what you make of it. If you don’t enjoy running, or have injuries preventing you from it, try cycling or swimming! You can take your bike outside and explore, or take a high-energy spin class with a fun teacher and good music. Or do a lap across the pool, tread water for one minute, and repeat a few times. Take a boxing class, you’d be surprised how winded you get just trying to keep your hands up, and how empowered you feel throwing punches. Or just take a walk for an hour. You don’t need to feel like you’re dying to get your heart working, any more than you need to be maxing out your lifts every time to see any results.
Personally, I only run a couple times a week, unless I’m training for a race. I supplement my cardio with some boxing, which is my favorite form of cardio, and some fun high intensity interval training (HIIT) drills, like this:
30 seconds on, 10 seconds rest, repeat five times
- Jumping jacks
- Mountain climbers
- High knees
- Butt kicks
When I train clients this way, I always work in their preferences. Do they like boxing? We’ll do more drills. Do they want to work on agility and quickness? We’ll do ladder drills and other coordination exercises for speed. As long as the heart is the “prime mover” of the activity, and they enjoy it, then we’re getting the job done.
Cardio is often neglected and much too important to be. Now that you know the benefits of cardiovascular exercise, you can translate into achieving your goals.
-Kaitlin Ross, CPT