Besides dumbbells, the quintessential fitness image is: the treadmill. Working out on machines like this, including ellipticals, stair climbers, or stationary bicycles, is what’s called cardiovascular exercise. Cardiovascular exercise refers to any activity that increases the heart rate and respiration while using large muscle groups repetitively and rhythmically, according to Livestrong.com. Cardio is recommended with weight loss because it primarily burns fat instead of building muscle. But it’s a tool that should be used sparingly and for the right purpose. Getting stuck on the endless cardio train can become a habit and keep you from achieving your goals. Today, we’re going to take a deeper look at this kind of exercise, when it’s the most helpful and when it’s not.
Typically, you burn more calories during cardio sessions than weight lifting. The exact number varies based on your body weight. To adequately burn fat, you want to aim for a target heart rate. Many exercise machines and electronic accessories like Fitbits can measure your heart rate so you know you’ve reached your ideal pace. Your fat-burning heart rate is at about 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, according to Healthline. You can calculate it by subtracting your age from 220. After you finish your cardio, this heightened state of calorie burning can continue for several hours afterwards, but your body eventually returns to its normal heart rate and calorie consumption. So a small amount of cardio gives you all day benefits, rendering it unnecessary to torture yourself on the elliptical for hours at the gym.
Cardio is also good for weight loss because it creates a caloric deficit. For example, if you consumed your maintenance level calories of 1600 in one day, but you burned 300 calories during a cardio session, you are still consuming less food than your body needs and therefore losing weight. Depending on your preference, you can choose to eat more food and do more cardio to stay in a deficit, or eat less and do less cardio. As long as the weight loss calorie goal is reached, the method is up to you.
There are two types of cardio workouts: HIIT and LISS. High intensity interval training (HIIT) involves rapid movement with very little rest time, putting more strain on the muscle than a brisk walk on the treadmill. These kinds of sessions maximize fat burn in a short amount of time and typically involve sprints, or circuit training. Low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio doesn't demand as much from your body or require as much recovery time. Ellipticals, stair climbers, and stationary bicycles would typically fall under this category. While these sessions are longer and less cardio intensive, you are still burning an adequate amount of calories to supplement weight loss.
You can also get your cardio in by simply lifting weights. If you cut down on your rest time between lifts and bump up your heart rate, these kind of workouts can become cardio intensive. Though you are primarily contracting your muscles, the higher pace will help you achieve the same kind of burn as a cardio machine.
There are limits to cardiovascular exercise. Doing too much cardio and not eating enough food, can lead to muscle deterioration. High levels of cardio without the right calories to sustain it puts your body in a catabolic state, breaking down protein into acid and destroying muscle cells. Extended periods of this catabolic process can also slow down your metabolism and reduce your overall strength.
There is a reason that seasoned, long-distance runners have a common body type: low body fat, muscle density and overall weight. The smaller the body, the more aerodynamic, much like professional swimmers. This slim body type supports cardio intensive sports, but if your aim is muscle tone and a full figure, there are more productive means to exercise.
Bodybuilders will bump up their cardio sessions when they are getting close to a physique show. They remain in a caloric deficit, but their protein consumption stays relatively the same to ensure muscle retention and fat loss. This process slowly melts away excess fat while leaving the muscles virtually untouched. Keep in mind, these athletes have put in the months and years to build muscle through weight lifting, so cardio only reveals their hard work instead of breaking it down. When they are trying to put on muscle, cardio sessions are much less frequent and sometimes nonexistent.
Even if you don’t want to lose weight, cardio has a wide array of health benefits. It improves lung function, circulation, strengthens the heart muscles, and helps oxygen flow through the body, according to BodyBuilding.com. So even when your goals change, keep cardio sessions in your schedule when you can.
Experts recommend no more than 15 to 20 minutes of cardio per session, 3 to 4 times a week. This may vary depending on the intensity of your cardio method and what you’re comfortable with. Creating a routine that fuels your fitness goals and doesn’t leave you completely exhausted will help you stay committed long-term. You don’t have to burn up your lungs and go home drenched in sweat to be fit. So hop off the treadmill, experiment with machines and find a cardio routine that works for you.
Take it from me
In the beginning, cardio was my worst nightmare. The years I spent running sprints with my high school soccer team left me traumatized. I was willing to do just about anything to get in shape, but I’m just not built for running. So I found a way to turn cardio into my personal “me” time. I tried steady stair-climber sessions for 20 minutes at a time, distracting myself with Youtube or a book. In no time at all, I could feel my heart and lungs getting stronger. I went from barely being able to handle 10 minutes to breezing through a half hour without breaking a sweat. When I was trying to lose weight, I did cardio almost every day. Now that I’m chasing other goals, I keep my sessions short and sweet, saving them for last so I don’t burn myself out before lifting weights. I do enough to feel warm and active, but not enough to create a real deficit. It’s now a part of my fitness regimen that I look forward to. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it works for me and that’s all that matters.