Is Your Cardio Routine Doing All That It Should?

Before you start wasting hours upon hours on those boring treadmills, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines, let’s examine if low-moderate intensity, long duration cardio exercise is really doing your body any good, or if it is mostly a waste of time. I hope you will concede upon finishing this article that there is a better way to get in great shape, and it doesn’t have to involve endless hours on boring cardio machines.

It is common to hear fitness professionals and medical doctors prescribe low to moderate intensity aerobic training (cardio) to people who are trying to prevent heart disease or lose weight. Most often, the recommendations constitute something along the lines of “perform 30-60 minutes of steady pace cardio 3-5 times per week maintaining your heart rate at a moderate level”. Before you just give in to this popular belief and become the “hamster on the wheel” doing endless hours of boring cardio, I’d like you to consider some recent scientific research that indicates that steady pace endurance cardio work may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

First, realize that our bodies are designed to perform physical activity in bursts of exertion followed by recovery, or stop-and-go movement instead of steady state movement. Recent research is suggesting that physical variability is one of the most important aspects to consider in your training. This tendency can be seen throughout nature as all animals demonstrate stop-and-go motion instead of steady state motion. In fact, humans are the only creatures in nature that attempt to do “endurance” type physical activities.

Most competitive sports (with the exception of endurance running or cycling) are also based on stop-and-go movement or short bursts of exertion followed by recovery. To examine an example of the different effects of endurance or steady state training versus stop-and-go training, consider the physiques of marathoners versus sprinters. Most sprinters carry a physique that is very lean, muscular, and powerful looking, while the typical dedicated marathoner is more often emaciated and sickly looking. Now which would you rather resemble?

Another factor to keep in mind regarding the benefits of physical variability is the internal effect of various forms of exercise on our body. Scientists have known that excessive steady state endurance exercise (different for everyone, but sometimes defined as greater than 60 minutes per session most days of the week) increases free radical production in the body, can degenerate joints, reduces immune function, causes muscle wasting, and can cause a pro-inflammatory response in the body that can potentially lead to chronic diseases. On the other hand, highly variable cyclic training has been linked to increased anti-oxidant production in the body and an anti-inflammatory response, a more efficient nitric oxide response (which can encourage a healthy cardiovascular system), and an increased metabolic rate response (which can assist with weight loss).

Furthermore, steady state endurance training only trains the heart at one specific heart rate range and doesn’t train it to respond to various every day stressors. On the other hand, highly variable cyclic training teaches the heart to respond to and recover from a variety of demands making it less likely to fail when you need it. Think about it this way — Exercise that trains your heart to rapidly increase and rapidly decrease will make your heart more capable of handling everyday stress. Stress can cause your blood pressure and heart rate to increase rapidly. Steady state jogging and other endurance training does not train your heart to be able to handle rapid changes in heart rate or blood pressure.

For example, let”s say you jog trying to maintain the same pace for a good 45-minute run. As long as you didn’t encounter any big hills along the way, you probably maintained approximately the same heart rate the entire time – let’s say it was 135 beats/minute. Now, let’s contrast that with a much more effective workout of doing 20 minutes of alternating all-out wind sprints with walking for a minute or two in between sprints to recover. With this more effective workout, you’re rapidly changing your heart rate up and down on a much larger scale, forcing it to grow stronger to be able to handle varied demands. Your heart rate would probably alternate from 110-115 during the recovery walks all the way up to 160 bpm or more during the sprints. This doesn’t mean that sprints are the only way to take advantage of this style of training. Any style of training that incorporates highly variable intensity will give you these improved results.

The important aspect of variable cyclic training that makes it superior over steady state cardio is the recovery period in between bursts of exertion. That recovery period is crucially important for the body to elicit a healthy response to an exercise stimulus. Another benefit of variable cyclic training is that it is much more interesting and has lower drop-out rates than long boring steady state cardio programs.

To summarize, some of the potential benefits of variable cyclic training compared to steady state endurance training are as follows: improved cardiovascular health, increased anti-oxidant protection, improved immune function, reduced risk for joint wear and tear, reduced muscle wasting, increased residual metabolic rate following exercise, and an increased capacity for the heart to handle life’s every day stressors. There are many ways you can reap the benefits of stop-and-go or variable intensity physical training.

In addition to the previously mentioned wind sprints, most competitive sports such as football, basketball, racquetball, tennis, hockey, etc. are naturally comprised of highly variable stop-and-go motion. In addition, weight training naturally incorporates short bursts of exertion followed by recovery periods. High intensity interval training (varying between high and low intensity intervals on any piece of cardio equipment) is yet another training method that utilizes exertion and recovery periods. For example, an interval training session on the treadmill could look something like this:

  • Warm-up for 3-4 minutes at a fast walk or light jog;
  • Interval 1 – run at 8.0 mi/hr for 1 minute;
  • Interval 2 – walk at 4.0 mi/hr for 1.5 minutes;
  • Interval 3 – run at 10.0 mi/hr for 1 minute;
  • Interval 4 – walk at 4.0 mi/hr for 1.5 minutes;
  • Repeat those 4 intervals 4 times for a very intense 20-minute workout.

The take-away message from this article is to try to train your body at highly variable intensity rates for the majority of your workouts to get the most beneficial response in terms of heart health, fat loss, and a strong, lean body.

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Katie
15. July 2010
Katie
15. July 2010
Jeff, When I say two *blown knees* I mean I have two knees that are so worn out and damaged, even after surgery, that I'm probably going to have have dual knee replacements. Through therapy, pool walking, and general lifestyle change, I'm trying to forestall it. I have had surgery on both knees, and my right knee has very little cartilage left, and it actually may have to be replaced soon, if it doesn't miraculously get better, and it won't, of course. I freestyle swim. I used to work out a lot (on the ground) before this. I started entering menopause in 2006, and immediately started gaining incredible amounts of weight, no matter what I did. I went from weighing 150-155 to 185 in a matter of half a year, and I have maintained that weight for the last 4 years, no matter what I do. In 2007, I fell down at work, very hard, and seriously damaged my right knee, but at the time I didn't know how bad. I went on about my business. I could feel my knee all the time, but it didn't really hurt, so I just screwed around with it until even I (I have a high pain threshhold) started feeling the pain, and I had to have the surgery last summer, because I wasn't able to walk very well. Wore out the other knee, rehabbing the first one, and I had to have surgery on it. It's doing okay. What I do now. I lift weights at home. I have two dogs I have to walk 4 times a day. I pool walk every day for 20 minutes, and then I swim for 20-30 minutes. I know I can pool walk PACE style. I was talking about swimming PACE style. I've tried sprinting as fast as I can down the lane, and then I stand up and pant, and then I sprint down the lane. I don't know how else to do PACE while swimming, unless I could sprint, and then tread water or deadman float, and then sprint, and then tread water. Did I give too much information? That's what I usually do. I have watched some videos online about swimming, and I guess I may have to take a class too, because I don't know how I can make myself go any faster during the sprint. I guess what I was asking is what do I do during the recovery time, and how long should it be?

Jeff
15. July 2010
Jeff
15. July 2010
Hi Katie, When you say "blown" knees, what exactly did you do? How long ago was your surgery? Can you do this in the pool? Yes -- but make sure you ramp up or progress in a safe manner. Your next question might be how long, how many sprints and how much rest in between. Now we're getting into specifics -- if knew a little more about you I could help on your path. Another way to go could be to get on one of those cross-trainers they have in the gyms where you're using mostly arms and your legs could be going along for the ride. Let me know if I can help -

steph
14. July 2010
steph
14. July 2010
I to get bored with the tredmill & eliptical. So what I do is take Body Pump 2 times a week & Body Vive (low impack aerobics) 2 times a week. But if I do the tredmil I do it on a incline between 3.0 & 7.0 and walk between 3.0 & 4.1 that way my heart rate keeps up. It works great & this routine keeps my workouts fun not boring

Katie
13. July 2010
Katie
13. July 2010
I have two blown knees. I've had surgery on both, and I'm just trying to maintain what I have as long as I can. I've taken up swimming. How do you do this swimming. Do I sprint down the lane and then just stand up and catch my breath, and then sprint again. By the way, I can swim, but I'm not *that great* so I can't even really sprint. Any advice from anyone? I have also seen this exercise described as PACE, and it always involves running or walking or using a treadmill. What are people with bad knees supposed to do?

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