By ALEXANDRA MATZKO
Cardio: does any type of exercise strike more fear or loathing into the hearts of we pitiful mortals trying to get into shape? If you’re like most Americans and me, specifically my fellow women, you may be in the midst of a new workout routine to obtain your health and fitness goals for the new year. I’m going to guess this routine includes some sort of cardiovascular activity. Pick your poison: the treadmill, the Stairmaster, the elliptical, the cycle class, the HIIT routine, the Crossfit WOD, the numerous 12 week; bikini-ready guides, or the other activity that gets your heart pumping fast. It’s torture, but we’re told it’s what we must do in order to shed the pounds.
But, what if that’s all a lie? What if most cardio can work for a while but will actually sabotage any long-term fitness goals?
The two times I got myself into shape, I relied on running. Either on the treadmill or in the great outdoors, I tried to put in a solid 30 minute effort at least five days a week. And, this method worked, but it didn’t work forever because both times I’ve regained the weight and stopped doing the cardio. I assumed this was the result of my own failing discipline, and that’s somewhat true, but there are other reasons why cardio may be hindering your fitness efforts.
Your Body Will Adapt. The first time you run a mile on the treadmill you feel like you’re going to die. The fifteenth time you do it, it’s doable, even … easy. Why? Because your body’s main tool for survival is adaptation. Lower your calories? Your body will eventually adapt to this new way of eating. Increase cardiovascular activity? Your body will adapt to it. So, your newly elevated heartbeat may help you shed the pounds in the first couple of months, but then you will find yourself in a weight loss plateau.
You Will Have to Keep Increasing Intensity. As if running one mile isn’t bad enough, now you have to run two to reap the same benefits. Then, you’ll have to run three—and faster! Then, four! You have no desire to be a long-distance runner; you’re just trying to get in shape, yet you have to run many miles several times a week to make it happen. And, now your knee is bothering you because of the high impact cardio you keep having to do to continue to see results.
It Isn’t Sustainable. If all you’re trying to do is improve your cardiovascular endurance, then cardio is the way to go, But, if you want to lose weight, it’s not the best choice. In fact, smart bikini or bodybuilding competitors reserve cardio to use as a secret weapon in their final two-four weeks before flexing on the competition stage. Cardio is a powerful weight loss tool, but it is a finite one. Don’t waste it at the very beginning of your fitness journey. Reserve it for the two weeks before your important beach vacation.
What type of exercise is best for long-term weight loss success and maintenance? Instead, replace your cardio with resistance (weight) training. Yes, it’s absolutely true that cardio burns a lot more calories than lifting weights in the moment, but cardio is just that: an in the moment burn. You literally have to run off every single one of those calories needed to reach a deficit. And, as your body adapts, cardio requires more of your time and effort than most people have or care enough about to give. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they loved to spend hours running long distances, I would still be a struggling writer. In our busy, modern lifestyle, cardio is a poor solution for lasting fitness.
Muscle, on the other hand, is a calorically expensive tissue. Building it will not only give you a toned (not bulky) look, your new muscle will burn calories automatically meaning without you having to do anything at all. Every pound of muscle you grow burns an extra 50 calories a day while you’re sleeping, binging Netflix, or eating pizza. If you gain 10 pounds of muscle, you will burn an extra 500 calories a day with no extra effort at all! Yes, weight lifting will not give you the same, fast results as cardio, but it will grant you real and lasting results in the long-term. Which one is more important to you? Your body will also adapt to your current five pound dumbbell routine just like your one mile run, but then you just up to a heavier dumbbell without having to sacrifice any more time or your poor joints. There are also a whole host of other benefits to lifting weights and building muscle over cardio (hormones, posture, longevity), but these are the specifics surrounding weight loss.
So, I highly encourage both men and women to lift weights this year, and when I talk about lifting weights, I mean lifting heavy weights. There are several great, free full body weight lifting routines on the world wide web. Choose one and try it 2-3 times a week for a month. In addition to trying to get 10,000 steps a day, to moving more in general, and to dialing in your nutrition, you’ll be happily surprised by the results building muscle provides and never miss that old cardio routine you left behind.