‘Cardio alone won’t deliver weight loss, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it’

Woman running

There’s a growing number of people on social media that seem intent on vilifying cardio. I don’t mean they hate cardio because they’re wholly against exercise; a lot of people actually attack cardio because it doesn’t deliver the benefits they believe it should. Namely, being slim and toned. If cardio came in a tin there’s a belief it would read: ‘run on a treadmill and you’ll lose weight’.

The problem is that this belief about cardio is just that, a belief. A myth. There are a lot of other factors that determine whether you will be successful in losing weight.

The rhetoric of social media posts goes something like this: ‘Look at my amazing body that I built without any cardio. Here’s a picture of me five years ago when all I did was cardio. Now I lift weights and just look at my amazing body! Cardio made me miserable, but now I’m happy. Don’t bother with cardio, lift weights instead!”

OK, so maybe this is a slight exaggeration; maybe people really are happier than they were five years ago. Maybe it is all down to how they look, rather than a hundred other factors that play a part in happiness. But really, is it fair to blame cardio – or a lack of it – for a state of mind?

You may realise by this point that I’m being slightly pedantic. We all know what these Instagrammers are trying to say: you don’t have to spend hours on a treadmill to lose weight or ‘tone up’, and you can eat more calories in the process, giving you more energy overall. It’s a fact that escapes quite a few gym goers, who often spend hours pounding away on a treadmill in an attempt to shift the pounds, when what they really need to do is pick up a few weights and adjust their diets. Yet, however well intentioned, there’s a chance that these posts could end up vilifying cardio, when it’s important for long term health.

I’ll say at this point that I have, over the years, positioned myself pretty firmly on both sides of the fitness line. In my early 20s, I was the lightest I have been in my adult life, but I did absolutely no exercise. I drank fairly regularly, had a pretty small but routine diet, and ate copious amounts of sugar (at times, up to 350 per cent above the RDA – and, yes, I did calculate it).

In my mid 20s,  I decided to be a triathlete. I launched myself into a six day per week training schedule that included just one hour of resistance training on a Sunday. I would run three times a week, do a long bike ride once a week and would swim twice a week. Basically, my week revolved around cardio. Sometimes I loved it, sometimes I was sitting on the fence, and other times I hated it.

Now, in my early 30s, and with a passion for weight lifting, I rarely do any cardio. Admittedly, my resistance sessions often include minimal rest and sometimes I’ll chuck in some HIIT to get my blood pumping; realistically though, I don’t do enough to get my heart working. Cardio has taken a backseat, when it should, at the very least, occupy the passenger.

All I’m saying is that, at times in my life I have been happy doing cardio for days on the trot. I have also been unhappy during these times (and did sometimes blame cardio – because, hey, it’s an easy target). However, I also know that, during my cardio years, I felt incredibly fit and loved the progress I made and the sense of accomplishment.

I do understand that some people may have a genuine reason to be cautious about cardio.  People who may have been unfortunate enough to experience a serious eating disorder, could, I imagine, associate their disorder with cardio and shy away from it, for fear of lapsing back into a weight-loss mindset. I also understand that, for some people with health problems, cardio just isn’t an option. However, for most people, this simply isn’t the case. Sure, you might not like cardio, and no, you don’t need it to lose weight, but there really isn’t much that beats quality cardiovascular exercise to help keep your heart healthy.

According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: “When done regularly, moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity strengthens your heart muscle. This improves your heart’s ability to pump blood to your lungs and throughout your body. As a result, more blood flows to your muscles, and oxygen levels in your blood rise. Capillaries, your body’s tiny blood vessels, also widen. This allows them to deliver more oxygen to your body and carry away waste products.”

It also lessens coronary heart disease risk factors and reduces heart attack risk.

So, while it may not be as aesthetically pleasing or as rewarding as well defined shoulders and thighs, your heart still deserves some attention. Lifting weights and scrapping cardio may seem an easy way out for people who simply want to lose weight to look good – and it sounds great on Instagram, accompanied by some unhelpful comparison shots – but a healthy heart should always be a priority if you want long term health and fitness. Admittedly, cardio alone will not get you there, but it will certainly help.

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