Should You Do Cardio? (science-backed answers)

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Cardiovascular training has been around since the dawn of man in some form or fashion. When we once were hunter/gatherers cardio was woven into our lives as a necessity. Running from predators, defending our homes, and just pure survival gave man the built-in benefits of cardio without ever setting aside time to “exercise.” 

Nowadays with technology advancing at an alarming rate, lives becoming more hectic, and obesity climbing worldwide many look to cardio to lose weight and lead healthier lives. But is cardio all it’s cracked up to be? Is it the savior we tend to think it is?

Let’s break a few things down and get to the truth about cardio training: the benefits, the downsides, and if it’s right for you. 

Is cardio necessary?

There have been countless studies citing the fact that cardiovascular, or aerobic, training is beneficial within the medical community. For example, a 2011 study in the Journal of Research in Rehabilitation Sciences found that as part of a comprehensive plan including cardiac risk factors modification and education, among other factors, patients reduced cardiovascular mortality [1]. In other words, individuals became successful when aerobic training was part of their routine. 

Moreover, a study published in The Physician and Sports Medicine journal in 2015 concluded:

“Patients who are active at an early age and who continue to enjoy active lifestyles as adults will attenuate the normal losses in cardiovascular endurance, strength, and flexibility that accompany aging and sedentary living, thereby maintaining greater independence throughout their life spans [2].”

So, we’ve established cardio is necessary for many uses regarding health and mortality, but what about burning fat?

Will cardio burn fat?

For decades, many have believed cardio training was the best and most efficient way to burn fat and to lean up. But, is this true? Is it still number one or are we missing something? Let’s look at the science.

A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology wanted to find how aerobic and/or resistance training affected body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults. After extensive analysis, it was concluded that aerobic training alone was the optimal mode of exercise for reducing body fat [3].

These findings may be due to the fact that at low intensities, the body will utilize fat for fuel more efficiently than carbohydrates. High-intensity weight training, conversely, will use readily available sugars in muscle tissue, your bloodstream, and your liver for fuel. 

In fact, a study was done on a group of dieting obese participants on the effects of strength training or aerobic training on body composition, resting metabolic rate, and peak oxygen consumption. Specifically, the strength training group lost the least amount of fat-free mass, but, along with the aerobic training group, did not prevent the decline in resting metabolic rate [4]. 

So, what is cardio good for?

Many will tend to villainize cardio training as some sort of medieval form of ineffective exercise – overhyped and overutilized. But, aside from the obvious and well-documented positive effects on heart disease, certain types of cancers, and overall well-being, there is another, less-known positive to derive from cardio training. 

As a pleasantly surprising side-effect, a study from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine sought to find out that due to many changing levels of hormones, namely ghrelin and leptin, aerobic training decreases appetite by manipulating hunger [5]. 

Simply put, exercise may make you less hungry making you eat fewer overall calories. 

Benefits of cardio

So, aside from the health benefits and appetite suppression, what are some other benefits of cardio? 

Maintains a healthy blood pressure

Studies have repeatedly shown that cardiovascular exercise can reduce high blood pressure to that of healthy levels [6]. Lower blood pressure not only means longevity but also less strain on your circulatory system for better recovery between workouts. 

Boosts brain function

As we age we tend to lose cognitive function and brain tissue. This decline also signifies a loss in mental performance. Cardiovascular training, however, has been shown to reduce the decline in brain tissue in older adults as shown from a 2003 study citing significant differences compared to a controlled group [7].

Protects your immune system

Moderate exercise can improve your immune system by increasing the number of immunoglobulins produced from white blood cells. These molecules are your main defense for combating bacteria and viruses and fortify your system for overall health benefits. 

Easily accessible 

Cardio training is relatively free and easy to put into practice. Running, walking, and interval training can be done virtually anywhere. Biking only requires a small investment as well as swimming. Nearly every gym has cardio equipment and some even have specialized areas for things such as boxing. 

Easy to modify

If running sprints isn’t your thing you can take up jogging. If jogging isn’t your bag then go for a walk. The great thing about cardio is that much like resistance training you can easily modify it to your needs and abilities. Everything from speed, intervals, complexity, and duration is managed by you and you alone. 

Downsides of cardio

Of course, anything good does have a downside. Too much of anything can have reverse effects on not only our body but our mental state as well. 

  • If you’re nursing an injury or minor tear in your knees, hips, or ankles cardio exercise such as running will only make things worse. If it hurts don’t do it and don’t feel like you need to just get through it. “Manning up” and running through the pain will eventually land you on the operating table. 
  • There is a possibility that you may not be built for certain forms of cardio. Running, for example, may not be the best choice for a 250-pound bodybuilder. They may need something a bit more low impact such as biking or brisk walking. The same applies if you’re the type who needs to lose a significant amount of body fat. Too much weight-bearing impact will eventually lead to injury. 
  • Too much cardio can lead to boredom as well. A cardio plan without a set goal and parameters will only make it feel twice as long and twice as difficult. Have a plan for intensity, duration, variation, and take measurements such as target heart rate and rate your perceived exertion on a scale of one to 10. Try hitting a five or more. 

Types of cardio

There are so many types of cardio training modes to choose from but here we’ll keep things simple and familiar. 

LISS

LISS stands for low intensity, steady-state. This is the form of cardio you’re most likely familiar with. A long walk, a low-intensity jog, bike ride, elliptical trainer, or a relatively easy swim would fit into this category. Here you’re keeping the intensity at a relatively easy to moderate level pacing yourself for a medium to lengthy duration of exercise. These sessions may be from 20 minutes to a full hour or more. The goal is to utilize more fat for fuel due to the lower intensity level. 

HIIT

HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training. You may also have heard of this type of cardio being popularized by those who favor cross-training or are pressed for time or simply want something different to do other than the longer steady-state stuff. Here, you intermittently perform short bouts of high-intensity exercise followed by longer bouts of lower intensity. This pattern is repeated several times for a shorter duration than LISS. The theory goes that more fat is burned for several hours post-exercise, but studies have been inconclusive regarding this notion. 

How to add cardio to your life

There’s a ton of back and forth about when to do cardio – specifically if you should do it before or after your weight workouts or if you should just leave it for its own day. 

There’s a ton of research to validate many viewpoints, but here I want to keep things simple and give some practical advice. 

If you decide to do cardio on a training day a good rule of thumb to follow is to perform it after your weight workout. The reason being is to reserve most of your short-term energy for the weights so you can perform at your best. You’ll be fresh and full of energy to hit the weights while firing on all cylinders. 

With this approach, it’s safe to perform LISS (if you have time) or HIIT (if you’re a bit more crunched for time) after weight training. 

If you decide, for any reason, to perform cardio before your weight workout it’s best to go with LISS since it will expend fewer essential carbs which you’ll need for training afterward. 

Which type of cardio is better? 

Again, much research has been done to differentiate the effects of both types of cardio. All of the nuances will only frustrate you to no end, relegating you to indecision. 

The best approach is to consider your tolerance level, time available, and mood for the day. You don’t want to turn your cardio sessions into something you dread. And if you’re an endurance athlete or recreational runner who wants to increase your performance then you may be in need of a more specific cardio training program. 

The bottom line is to vary the types of cardio training you do and make it fit into your current lifestyle and goals. 

Closing

Whether your goal is fat loss, better cardiovascular health, or improving your lung capacity, cardio is a rather simple concept and one from which you’ll reap many benefits. It’s wise to make it a part of any workout to help you build a more holistic approach to health and wellbeing. 

***

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References

  1. ESTEKI GHASHGHAEI, F., & SADEGHI, M., & YAZDEKHASTI, S. (2011). A REVIEW OF CARDIAC REHABILITATION BENEFITS ON PHYSIOLOGICAL ASPECTS IN PATIENTS WITH CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE. JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN REHABILITATION SCIENCES, 7(5 (SUPPLEMENT)), 706-715. https://www.sid.ir/en/journal/ViewPaper.aspx?id=256589
  2. Jack H. Wilmore & Howard G. Knuttgen (Exercise Physiology Series Editor) (2003) Aerobic Exercise and Endurance, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 31:5, 45-51, DOI: 10.3810/psm.2003.05.367 
  3. Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults, Leslie H. Willis, Cris A. Slentz, Lori A. Bateman, A. Tamlyn Shields, Lucy W. Piner, Connie W. Bales, Joseph A. Houmard, and William E. Kraus, Journal of Applied Physiology 2012 113:12, 1831-1837
  4. A Geliebter, M M Maher, L Gerace, B Gutin, S B Heymsfield, S A Hashim, Effects of strength or aerobic training on body composition, resting metabolic rate, and peak oxygen consumption in obese dieting subjects, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 66, Issue 3, September 1997, Pages 557–563, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/66.3.557 
  5. Vatansever-Ozen, S., Tiryaki-Sonmez, G., Bugdayci, G., & Ozen, G. (2011). The effects of exercise on food intake and hunger: relationship with acylated ghrelin and leptin. Journal of sports science & medicine, 10(2), 283–291.
  6. Guoyuan Huang, Xiangrong Shi, Cheryl A. Gibson, Sunny C. Huang, Nadine A. Coudret & Mary C. Ehlman (2013) Controlled aerobic exercise training reduces resting blood pressure in sedentary older adults, Blood Pressure, 22:6, 386-394, DOI: 10.3109/08037051.2013.778003
  7. Stanley J. Colcombe, Kirk I. Erickson, Naftali Raz, Andrew G. Webb, Neal J. Cohen, Edward McAuley, Arthur F. Kramer, Aerobic Fitness Reduces Brain Tissue Loss in Aging Humans, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Volume 58, Issue 2, February 2003, Pages M176–M180, https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/58.2.M176

Brad Borland

Cancer Survivor, Military Veteran, University Lecturer, Strength Coach, Natural Drug-Free Bodybuilder, Husband, Father. Find me at bradborland.com.