Is Cardio Actually Necessary? 5 Reasons Why I Don’t Do Cardio

Everyone is told that the key to weight loss is diet and exercise.

But what do they actually mean when they say ‘exercise?’ If you ask the general population, most people assume that they are referring to cardio.

But is cardio necessary to achieve your goals?

How much cardio have you done in your lifetime? Are you satisfied with your results?

Today we are going to argue why cardio is not necessary for heart health, for fat loss or for toning.

I will also provide 5 convincing reasons why I don’t do cardio, and why it might be a waste of your time.

Let’s get started.

 

What Is Steady State Cardio?

First things first, it is important to note that this article is referring to low intensity, steady state cardio.

Steady state cardio refers to any type of aerobic exercise that is performed at a low intensity for a prolonged period of time. Typically, it is done for approximately 20 minutes to an hour.

For example, this is the type of cardio where you put a towel on the treadmill screen so that you don’t know how long you are actually running for. Or where you put your iPad on the elliptical and just watch TV while you workout.

We have all been taught to believe that cardio is necessary for health, weight loss, and to burn fat.

Thankfully that is not the case.

However, not all cardio is created equal. We have written an entire post on The Best Form of Cardio For Weight Loss [The 15 Minute Workout] in which we go over the benefits of high intensity interval training, aka HIIT.

 

Isn’t Cardio Good For You?

Everyone knows that cardio is good for the heart.

Performing low intensity steady state cardio can and will make the heart more efficient.

We can see this in high level endurance athletes, who have very low resting heart rates.  When training for endurance, the heart is able to pump more blood throughout the body with each heart beat, and as a result, it does not need to beat as often.

A low resting heart rate is a marker of aerobic fitness, but is it actually necessary for health?

Research shows that improving your aerobic capacity is very beneficial for your health.

Improved aerobic capacity has been associated with lower blood pressure, stronger bones, and decreased levels of depression.

However, the good news is that these benefits are not exclusive to cardio.

There are other methods of improving your heart’s efficiency that does not involve spending countless hours on the treadmill. Therefore, cardio is not necessary for health.

Contrary to popular belief, cardio is not king.

 

Is Cardio Necessary To Lose Weight?

Let’s be honest.

Most of you aren’t doing cardio for your heart health.  Most people don’t even care about their heart.

The reason why so many people do cardio is because they think it will help them lose weight.

The thought process is that running for a long period of time will burn off a lot of calories, and therefore you will be in a caloric deficit.

If it truly were that easy, then no one would be overweight.

The truth of the matter is, you cannot outrun a bad diet.

Eating calories is way easier than burning them off.

There just isn’t enough time in a day to do all the steady state cardio necessary to actually burn a significant amount of calories.

One hour on a treadmill can burn anywhere from 300-500 calories, depending on your size and how fast you are running.

If you ask me, 1 hour is too long of a commitment to just burn 400 calories. You could find several drinks at Starbucks that have more calories than that.

Cardio without a dedicated eating plan is a recipe for failure.  You will be wasting your time. Period.

You are far more likely to lose weight by cleaning up your eating habits than by doing cardio.

 

 

 

Is Cardio Necessary For Abs (or Toning)?

The short answer is no.

Cardio is no more effective at helping you tone your body then it is at helping you lose weight.

In order for you to develop visible abs (or visible anything), you need to decrease your body fat percentage. This is primarily determined by your genetics.

If you are an ectomorph, it is extremely easy to develop a visible 6-pack compared to someone who is an endomorph. Unfortunately, thats just the way it is.

Cardio can help you lose body fat, but only if these prerequisites are in place:

1) You clean up your diet and minimize your consumption of low quality foods

2) You increase your lean muscle mass percentage

3) You keep your cortisol levels in check (by improving your sleep quality)

Therefore, it is probably in your best interest to maximize these three pre-requisites before you decide on which season of the Walking Dead you are going to watch while you are on the elliptical.


5 Reasons Why I Don’t Do Cardio

Now that we have covered why cardio is not necessary for the reasons you may think, here are the top 5 reasons why I don’t do cardio.

1. The Human Body Isn’t Meant To Do Long Distance Running

This one is controversial.

We can go back and forth arguing whether or not the human species was meant to run long distances.

But here’s my take.

1) Evolutionarily speaking, humans run for one of two things – to catch their prey, or to avoid being a snack.

Every time you run, you are activating the “fight or flight” response. It is a highly stressful event that is directly tied to survival.

Now, answer this question.

If you had to hunt your food (or avoid becoming food) do you think that you would be running at a steady pace for 30 minutes to an hour?

No, of course not.

You would bolt at maximum speed towards your prey or away from your predator. Often times, these would probably be in short spurts that don’t last much longer than a few minutes.

In other words, we were designed to move quickly, over short periods of time.

This is what sprinting or different types of HIIT workouts attempts to mimic.

 

2) Secondly, if humans were meant to run long distances, then we shouldn’t experience the high rates of injury that are associated with running.

Long distance running is associated with way too many repetitions.

Think about it.

A slow and steady run that lasts 30 minutes is thousands of repetitions of high impact landings on your knees, ankles and hips.

If you run 30 minutes every day or every other day, then think about the amount of wear and tear your joints are receiving on a daily basis.

This is especially true for people who run with bad form.

When was the last time you checked your running form and made sure it was optimal?

Running with bad form for thousands of repetition is your one way ticket to shin splints, plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome, patellofemoral syndrome, hip arthritis and more.

 

2) You Lose Your Endurance Fast

Anyone who has improved their endurance significantly knows that in order to keep that level of fitness, you have to keep running, A LOT.

If you were to stop running for a short period of time, your body quickly becomes de-conditioned and your endurance starts to go back to its baseline at a rapid rate.

Stop running for long enough, and you might be back at square one.

With that said, if you are a seasoned athlete and have been running for years, then your aerobic capacity will be slower to regress, but that just isn’t the case for most of us.

The same is true for really bulky muscles. If you stop lifting heavy weights and eating for muscle, then your body will quickly get rid of any excess muscle mass.

Your body will however, hold on to a certain level of strength and a certain level of muscle mass for much longer periods of time, as your survival is directly tied to your ability to move.

 

 

3. Running Eats Up Your Muscle Mass

If you perform slow steady state cardio long enough, you will begin to burn through muscle.

As we just mentioned above, running triggers your body to go into a “fight” or “flight” response. Both are associated with increased levels of stress and elevated cortisol levels.

Cortisol will shunt blood flow from the gastrointestinal tract (to slow digestion), and increase blood flow to the muscles (so that you can continue to run). This is so that your muscles can obtain the necessary oxygen and nutrients to keep producing force for 30-60 minutes straight.

In order to feed the muscles, your body will use up whatever resources it has to keep you going.

First, your body will use up glycogen, which is basically stored sugar in your liver and in your muscles. Once all of the carbohydrates/sugar gets used up, your body will start to use up fat and extra muscle mass.

Muscles are very expensive to carry. It burns through calories just for maintenance, which is why people with more muscle automatically have higher metabolism.

As a long distance runner, you need all of the calories you can get just to keep yourself moving, so having any expensive tissues in the body (aka muscle mass) will be counterproductive.

In addition, runners need to carry the least amount of weight possible, because any extra mass will hinder your running capabilities.  Another reason to shed any extra muscle mass.

If we take two extreme examples, we can see the marked difference between many marathon runners (very thin with little muscle mass) and sprinters (solid and very muscular).

The primary differences between marathon runners and sprinters are determined by two things:

1. Genetics: Thin people will naturally be better long distance runners, therefore they gravitate towards endurance sports, and

2. Training: Sprinters primarily focus on strength and explosiveness aka (HITT) which increases muscle mass and decreases fat storage.

 

Is it possible to perform low intensity steady state cardio and not lose muscle mass?

Yes, but why waste your time doing this extra work when you can use the strategies outlined below?

 


4. Cardio is Unbelievably Boring

Anytime I have been on a treadmill, it seems like I experience Albert Einstein’s time dilation from the theory of relativity.

It feels as if I have been on the treadmill for 30 minutes and when I look down it has only been 5.

I just can’t stand being in one place doing nothing but running or cycling on the stationary bike.

I’ve even seen people bring their iPad to watch TV shows during their cardio workout.

Running outside can help relieve some of the boredom, but why do it at all if cardio is not necessary for any of the benefits we have been taught to believe.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I rather enjoy my workout and not die of boredom when I am supposed to be physically active.

 

5. Similar Benefits Can Be Derived From Walking

So what can you do instead of cardio to derive similar benefits?

Easy. Walk.

You simply need to walk more.

Say what you wan’t, but there is absolutely no argument against that fact that humans were designed to walk, A LOT. Evolutionarily, we were nomads, constantly moving from place to place.

Walking keeps your heart pumping, maintains a nice fluid circulation throughout your body and strengthens your bones.  It doesn’t cost a thing and you can do it wherever you are.

It’s also the most basic form of exercise that most people fail to master.

Why do people run when they don’t even walk?

Check out The Powerful Benefits of Walking for Weight Loss to find simple ways to incorporate more walking into your routine.

The second thing that you can do to get the same benefits of cardio is to perform REAL resistance training.

I’m not talking about bicep curls and shoulder raises.

I mean performing large range of motion, functional exercises for 6-12 repetitions. If you use enough weight and keep your rest periods short, you will achieve a steady increase in your heart rate, oxygen consumption and metabolic activity, all of which will help to improve your aerobic capacity while increasing your muscle mass.

Lifting weights will also keep your basal metabolic rate elevated even after you workout!

Why not kill two birds with one stone?

 

 

Do You Need To Do Cardio?

Don’t get me wrong.

If you love cardio, and you do it as a hobby, or you do it because you love the way that it makes you feel, then by all means, keep doing it.

You are already ahead of the majority of the population.

But if you are doing cardio because you were led to believe that it is necessary for weight loss or because you thought you had to, then you should probably reconsider.

You are much better off spending your time doing resistance training. Don’t know where to start? Check out our comprehensive posts on training to learn more.

Now tell us what you think.

Are you Pro Cardio or Against Cardio?

Do you perform cardio because you were told it was necessary for fitness or weight loss?

Comment below and let us know.

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Alex & Brittany

Alex & Brittany

Alex & Brittany Robles are the founders of The White Coat Trainer, a site dedicated to improving the health and wellness of busy individuals. They both hold MD degrees and just like you, they lead very busy lives. They believe that anyone can achieve a higher level of fitness by implementing a few simple strategies into their lifestyle!

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10 thoughts on “Is Cardio Actually Necessary? 5 Reasons Why I Don’t Do Cardio”

  1. Love the blog and usually find myself shaking my head in agreement on almost everything you write. I must say that I disagree with you on this one though coming from someone who use to have similar views.
    Addressing Why You Don’t Do Cardio

    Humans actually are designed for long distance running. In your hunting example do you really think humans could sprint after a deer and catch it? Most people believe that before spears and arrows existed our ancestors used what is called persistent hunting were they basically run the animal to death. There is still a bushman tribe that to this day hunts this way. Really fascinating.
    True. Just like you get fat fast if you stop eating a healthy diet. Not a reason to not eat healthy.
    This is drastically overstated. Cardio does have the potential to burn muscle but only at the absolute extremes. Search 2009 TransEurope Running Study where athletes ran 2,800 miles in 64 days. They lost a lot of fat, zero muscle in their upper body, and the muscle lost in there lower body was attributed to extreme overtraining associated with the eccentric force of running.
    It can be but just because something is boring or hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
    I agree. Walking is a form of cardio though?

    Other points to address

    You use the marathon vs sprint analogy but I think you would agree that looking at the extreme ends of the curve isn’t a great way to judge something. Marathon runners run over 100miles per week and no one is recommending that much cardio for health. I wouldn’t want women to look at bodybuilders or Crossfit athletes and say “see that is why I don’t lift because I don’t want to look like that”. That said if you look at the legs of cyclist you will notice some pretty impressive legs despite all that cardio.
    Is cardio necessary to lose weight? Absolutely not but it is a useful tool that almost all physique athletes use. True a half hour of cardio might only burn 200-300 calories but it all adds up just like all the small changes in your diet add up. Why not work both ends of the calorie deficit equation when trying to lose fat?

    Why I Do Cardio

    I want to live a longer. They recently did another meta-analysis and found running to be a key to longevity more so than any other form of exercise. “Running as a key lifestyle for longevity”
    A military friend of mine told me that the absolute minimum standard for men is 2 miles in 16 minutes. I went out to try it and was unsuccessful. I found it pretty pathetic I couldn’t meet a MINIMUM standard for fitness as someone who works out almost daily.
    Helps me build muscle and strength. As your workout wears on it becomes more and more of an aerobic event and less anaerobic. By improving my cardiovascular health it has helped me dramatically decrease my rest time between sets and keep up intensity at the end of my workout.
    Improved endurance makes me harder to kill. If you have ever done any boxing, mma or jiu-jitsu you know that having superior cardio can be like having a knife in the fight. The other guy might be way better than you fresh but after five minutes and he gases out it is no contest. Which is why boxes run miles and miles every day.

    Man that was a long comment. Sorry if this comes off as me being an A-Hole I’m just trying to have a thoughtful discussion. Adding in a couple hours per week of cardio (mainly running) has been huge for improving my quality of life and I don’t want others to miss out.

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      Hey GrantGreat response. I appreciate the counter arguments.

      I have heard this argument before as well. The thing is, its hard to say that these persistent hunters were running the entire time (for hours) while they caught their prey. Instead, its possible that they meticulously followed track marks and walked most of these distances.
      Great point. But I have noticed that muscle and strength tends to hang around for long periods of time, even in the absence of lifting weights. This is why I think its better to spend your time developing muscle and strength rather than endurance.
      I appreciate the reference to the study. Taking it look at it, they only included 44 subjects, and the study group were all individuals who already completed marathons in the past. In addition, the paper does not include Information on their height and weight. It is likely that these individuals were already ultra lean and have minimal muscle mass in the upper body to begin with, making it difficult to extrapolate the data to general populations. But your point is taken. The potential for loss of muscle mass is there but it is not an immediate risk.
      Very true, but I find that people are less likely to engage in physical activities that are boring. HITT tends to be exciting and a great alternative to use 1-2x a week.
      Touche.

      That’s a reasonable point. I would lump cycling into a different category, as I am generally referring to people who run for long distances at low intensity.
      I hear you, however, I am trying to argue that there are more efficient ways of losing weight. Diet will always contribute to >80% of weight management, and if someone really hates doing cardio, then they don’t necessarily have to.

      Those are all great reasons to do low intensity steady state cardio. I do think that all of these benefits could be derived from HIIT, utilizing short sprints and accomplishing an equivalent amount of work in a fraction of the time. Some of the most elite level crossfit athletes for example hardly every do steady state cardio however, their work capacity transfers over to crazy levels of endurance.

      Cheers for that discussion. I really appreciate it.

      1. Thanks for the response.
        I totally agree that diet and the weights should be prioritized over cardio. And it sounds like you aren’t really against cardio but are just against that kind of middle intensity effort form, specifically jogging.
        In my experience doing a couple HIIT workouts once or twice per week just didn’t carry over to any kind of real endurance. I was really humbled trying to go run 2 hard miles. Like, I take pride in the fact that I’m healthy and strong but apparently wasn’t even fit enough to be in the Army. The HIIT workouts were also tough to recover from and could interfere with my weight training the way a light jog didn’t.
        For anecdotal evidence the Chinese weightlifting team goes for a morning jog before they train. These are pure explosive strength athletes yet jog.
        For me I’m not looking to run any marathons but I want to be able to run a 5K with my friends and not embarrass myself and I want to be able to run at least an 8:00 minute mile for the rest of my life. Endurance is very genetic and some people can meet those standards with absolutely zero training but I’m not one of them and I couldn’t get there with sprints and walks either.
        I would encourage anyone reading this to go test their 2 mile time or 5K time and see if you are happy with how you did. If you aren’t thrilled with it spend a couple months throwing in some jogging and see if you don’t notice some improvements. For me doing about 30-45 minutes twice a week was a game changer.

        1. The White Coat Trainer

          Hey Grant,
          You’re right. I am against long distance cardio, and the belief that it is absolutely necessary for everyone to do. I also aim to dispel the notion that cardio is necessary to lose weight.
          And yes, I agree, HIIT is tough to recover from. However If you do it consistently, I’ve seen many individuals incorporate it with their strength training and get simultaneous improvements in strength and endurance.
          Having an 8 min mile and a decent 5K are totally reasonable goals to have, and I don’t have anything against them.
          These are totally valid reasons to do cardio in your training. That would fall into the category of training for specific goals which is always far superior to doing cardio just because you think you have to.
          Also, just as I mentioned in the post, if you simply enjoy cardio and it makes you feel good, then you should continue to do it.

          1. We can agree to disagree on the topic of steady state cardio.
            It would be interesting if in a future post you came up with your own fitness standards. Kind of a good, better, best benchmarks for strength and conditioning.

          2. The White Coat Trainer

            That is a great idea. I was actually thinking of writing a post on this same topic. It will definitely be released at some point in the future!

  2. """Anyone who has improved their endurance significantly knows that in order to keep that level of fitness, you have to keep running, A LOT."""
    In my experience (as a cyclist), you can build excellent endurance with short high intensity workouts. I’ve trained for 800-mile rides using primarily high-intensity 20-30 mile "after work" rides and only the occasional longer, lower-intensity ride.
    There is a similar school of thought developing for running. There are several top athletes who train for ultras using shorter high-intensity workouts.
    The primary benefit I’ve seen from "long rides" is the mental preparation. It’s tough to know how to deal with the doldrums that occur after 20 hours in the saddle unless you’ve been through them before.

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      I agree 100%. Point is well taken.
      As I mentioned in my response to Grant’s comment, some elite level crossfit athletes do the same thing. They train in short high intensity bursts and it carries over to the long distance marathon like runs.
      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Enjoying the discussion. My only contribution is this:
    Interval training and reasonable cross training let me enjoy a wider range of activities than if I were just moving mass or running/walking/biking. It also helps my martial arts training: a good balance between strength and endurance lets me hang in there with those who are either stronger or better winded..

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      Thanks for your comment.
      I like your approach. It’s always a great idea to include a wide range of activities to keep driving fitness adaptations over the long haul!

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