Sunday, November 02, 2014

Don't call it "cardio"

I listen to a lot of health and fitness podcasts. A lot. Some of my current favorites are Tips of the Scale, Half Size Me, and the Lifestyle Accountability Show. (And let's have a moment of silence for the long-lamented Fat2Fit Radio and Two Fit Chicks and a Microphone.)

If you listen to three random episodes of these podcasts, though, chances are you will hear a devoted gym rat mention "cardio" with derision. "Cardio" is for chumps, plugging away on the stationary bike for no rewards. "Cardio" will not make you fit. Strength training is where all the action is.

The word itself is one of my problems. It seems to ignore endurance sports altogether and suggest that any non-strength-based exercise is about an attempt to burn calories on some type of hamster wheel inside a gym. I will be the first to agree that running on a treadmill or stepping away on one of those StairMasters is a pretty boring. But, so, to me, is weight lifting, which is the reason I haven't been doing it as much as I know I should.

Endurance sports, however, are challenging and fun and are done outside, in the real world, instead of inside a dusty old gym. And group fitness classes provide a sense of camaraderie with the other "regulars" along with a great workout. Walking, the simplest exercise of them all, is completely underrated as a form of exercise, and has been proven to be a great way to lose weight and get fit.  Some of the biggest critics of "cardio" got their start with walking and group fitness classes, so I think it's a shame that they are trivializing a useful tool in fitness and weight loss to their audiences just because they have moved on to other activities.

Another issue I have is the suggestion that endurance exercise does not build muscle.  No exercise is completely strength-based or completely endurance-based, though obviously each exercise emphasizes one over another.  Swimming, though, is a full-body resistance workout as well as an endurance exercise. Take a Spin class if you have never taken one, and tell me that you aren't building strength during the slower, higher-resistance segments.

Just like exercise, people fall along a continuum -- some people prefer to focus on power-based exercise (fast-twitch) and some people prefer to focus on endurance-based ones (slow-twitch). And most people, like me, fall somewhere in the middle.  No matter what people prefer, though, I think there is value in getting out of that comfort zone and doing strength, flexibility, AND endurance work.

Doing only a few different kinds of exercises, especially endurance exercise, can lead to overuse injuries. Strength training and flexibility work are necessary for all athletes, no matter what level or sport, and for one reason or another, many of them resist taking the time away from running or whatever other activity they prefer to build the framework for their sport. I would imagine that hard-core weightlifters can also run into injury problems, though, if they make training errors.

I really like to mix up my exercise. Of course, my main love is triathlon training, so I do the running, biking, and swimming. I also love yoga, which is more strength-based than most non-yogis realize. I enjoy Pilates, which has a serious strength component. I also just picked up a new Concept 2 rowing class, which works different muscles than my other fitness favorites, especially the back and shoulders.  I even used to enjoy just straight-up weight lifting in a gym, when I had friends to train with to make it more social.

I remember helping a bodybuilder move, my friend's (now ex- ) husband. He wouldn't even carry his own dumbbells because of his bad back. He just stood around watching us and complaining. I don't know if he was just a whiner or if he was so focused on building muscles for looks that he had no real-world strength at all.  Obviously I could make a whole straw-man argument about what a waste of time strength training is because of this one guy I knew who lifted weights but was useless in everyday activity.  That's the same kind of error that I'm hearing when those gym-types decide "cardio" is a waste of time because they see people reading magazines on the recumbent bike and barely breaking a sweat.


  1. I love cardio. ;)

    Great write up. In the end, it's all about goals, balance, and ultimately - what you will stick to consistently. Fun topic.

    -Sam (@TipsOfTheScale)

    1. I love that you stopped by to comment. I really enjoy your show.


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07