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.
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?
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.
Share this article with anyone who swears cardio is king.