Let me just say first of all, that moving your body is good. Doing cardio, aerobics, or jogging keeps your heart pumping and makes you feel good. But for weight loss, I believe cardio is the least effective form of exercise.
Here are the reasons why I no longer believe in cardio:
It’s not as simple as “calories in, calories out.” Scientific studies have shown that cardiovascular exercise makes you hungrier. Your body wants to replace those lost calories. Basically, with cardio, you are fighting your body to lose weight. Dr. Stephan Guyenet uses a great analogy that helped me to visualize this. He said that losing weight by doing cardio is like having the a/c on in your house. When it gets too cool and you want to warm it up a bit, you open the front door. Well, you know what happens then, right? The air conditioner works harder to cool the house, requiring even more energy. With cardio, you are burning more calories (working harder), so your body will crave more calories for energy too.
If “calories in, calories out” worked, then you would exercise (calories out) and eat less (calories in). But that is missing one very simple physiological process: hunger. You can only fight your body’s hunger signals for so long.
Repetitive cardio can do harm to joints and cause overuse injuries. Jumping and running definitely have their place in an exercise regimen, but all you have to do is look at the number of runners with bad knees to know that overuse injuries occur. Often.
The body adapts:
Your body adapts to cardio. This means that doing the same exercise becomes less effective over time. Your body adapts to the exercise– that’s why it gets easier. Your body is becoming more efficient at the exercise. Good for the body, but bad for weight loss. That means that to do exactly the same exercise, you will be burning less calories after a month than you were when you started.
Maybe you know someone who started doing cardiovascular exercise and lost a lot of weight. Maybe you know a lot of people who have done that. But what if it wasn’t the exercise at all? What if, like one aerobics instructor said, “After I’ve done a class, I don’t want to go eat that cheeseburger. I worked so hard to burn those calories, I don’t want to put them back in.” Maybe cardio exercise changes our psyche more than our figure, causing us to make other changes, like in what we eat. Or maybe, when we start working out, we are burning so many calories that our body has a hard time replacing them all through food. But as time goes on, and our bodies adapt, we burn less calories and our exercise is less effective at helping us lose weight.
What to do instead:
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
HIIT definitely gets my heart pumping. But unlike a traditional cardio workout, where you perform low to moderate intensity activity throughout the workout, HIIT training has periods of rest.
The basic structure of a HIIT workout is a warmup followed by intervals of intense exercise and intervals of active rest.
I walk down to my local park. It’s about a 5 minute walk, and that counts as my warmup. Then I run sprints across the length of the park. I have never been much of a runner, and I still wouldn’t say I’m fast, but when I sprint I give it everything I’ve got. I try to pretend that a bear is chasing me. Or that I’m in a race and this is the last 30 yards to the finish line. It’s that kind of a run. Totally. Intense. Focused. Running. I walk back to where I started and catch my breath. The first two times, I always think, “Why did I think this was so hard last time? This isn’t so bad.” By the fourth time, I’m starting to remember why I thought it was so hard. And after the 6th time, I can’t run back right away. I have to catch my breath a little longer before heading out for another intense sprint. I do this 6 to 10 times in a row and I walk back home.
The reason HIIT training works is that your body doesn’t “get used” to it. Just like with progressively adding more difficult weights, you progressively add more challenges with HIIT training- either by making your rest intervals shorter and your intensity intervals longer, or by lengthening the total time of the workout. You can also change up the exercise using this same format of intense exercise followed by active rest, working different muscle groups and not allowing your body to adapt.
Yoga and Stress
Yoga helps reduce stress. Stress in the body releases cortisol, a hormone known for its link to weight gain (especially around the midsection!). Deep breathing and meditation, both important parts of a yoga workout, reduce stress. Contrast that with the person who is busy busy busy all day long, hurries into the gym, starts running or doing some other form of cardio exercise, and then hurries on with their day. In that case, exercise continues to elevate the level of stress carried by the body. You send your body a message to burn calories and to produce cortisol- a mixed message!
Yoga strengthens your muscles. You get stronger when you hold poses for a long time. Though it works in a different (gentler) way than weight lifting, your body weight acts as resistance to build and tone muscles. And the more muscle you have, the more fat you burn, even at rest.
Yoga helps you feel good. With your muscles stretched and toned, of course you feel good after a yoga workout! But even more than that, you feel good about your body. Your muscles are stronger, and so is your mind. A few minutes of peace and relaxation helps you to remember that looking good is not what it’s all about. You feel better about where your body is now and what it is able to do. And when you feel good about your body, you want to treat your body better. You know that a donut is not going to nourish your body, and so- even when it sounds good! – it makes it easier to make a better choice.
I learned about heavy weightlifting from Jen, my personal trainer friend. I was already lifting weights, but she taught me a whole new concept. Instead of lifting 8 or 10 or even 15 pound dumbbells over and over and over, she taught me to lift heavy weights with less reps (repetitions). When she introduced me to this concept, I was used to teaching the S.E.T. (Strength Endurance Training) class at 24 hour fitness. We would lift weights for 3 minutes straight (followed by 3 minutes of cardio endurance). I would use about 20 pounds when I was squating for 3 minutes. With Jen’s help, I worked up to squating 105 pounds– and I definitely don’t do it for 3 minutes straight!
The whole point of weight training is to tear muscle fibers so you can rebuild a stronger muscle. These tiny muscle tears happen when you add resistance– or in other words, it has to keep getting harder!
When I was lifting a lighter weight over and over and over, I was working my heart, I was sweating, but after a while, my muscles got used to that kind of a workout. I wouldn’t even get sore! With heavy weightlifting, I am always sore afterward, if I do it right. That’s because I progressively add weight, or add a few more repetitions.
Weightlifting builds muscle. The more muscle you have the more calories you burn, even at rest. Or in other words, more muscle means a faster metabolism. That’s what we’re going for, right? Building muscle turns our bodies into calorie-burning machines.
When I was teaching aerobics, people would always ask me which burned more calories: cardio or weightlifting. The answer I would give was that cardio burned more calories during the hour you were doing it (usually not by a huge margin), but weightlifting burned calories while you were doing it and kept on burning calories afterward to feed the muscle you just built.Weight lifting increases your metabolism because you force your body to build more muscle.
There are great resources available to incorporate all these forms of training, skip the cardio, and lose the weight in the most effective way possible.