Woman running a marathon.

What’s Wrong with Chronic Cardio?

Woman running a marathon.

Physical exercise is indispensible for our health. Once we were always moving in one way or another, but today much of our life is sedentary. We get up in the morning, sit while eating breakfast, sit while commuting between home and work or school, sit all day at a desk, sit to eat dinner, then sit on the couch before going to bed. All that sitting has disastrous consequences. Chairs put us into an unnatural posture which promotes negative physical, metabolic and hormonal responses. Sitting for too long actually incites chemical changes in the brain that promote more inactivity.

Chronic Cardio is not healthy.

When Physical Exercise isn’t Healthy

We need to move often during throughout day. We need to do easy aerobic exercise a few times a week. We need to do strength exercises to keep our muscles strong and toned. And an all-out sprint once a week or every ten days is great for our hormones.

But many people, rather than moving frequently throughout the day, try to “compensate” for their sedentary lifestyle with intense cardio workouts after work. Intense workouts are great if they’re brief and only happen a couple of times a week. But when they’re too frequent, too long, too difficult and lack the necessary recovery time between sessions they take on the negative status of Chronic Cardio. 

To receive benefit from exercise, most movement should be easy and aerobic as opposed to difficult and anaerobic. These states determine whether the body is burning fat or glucose for energy. They impact upon our stress levels. They’re governed by the heart rate, and the maximum heart rate depends not on our fitness level, but on our age. The cut-off point for achieving optimal benefits without triggering the fight-or-flight mechanism is 75% of the maximum heart rate, or 180-minus-your age. This is ‘the Maffetone Formula’, named after it’s founder Dr. Phil Maffetone. 

Anaerobic exercise burns glucose, not fat.

What’s Wrong with Anaerobic Workouts?

When anaerobic exercise becomes chronic it does more damage than good. Anaerobic means ‘without oxygen’. It means the level of difficulty causes an oxygen shortage. Because glucose doesn’t require oxygen to burn, anaerobic exercise burns glucose instead of fat, resulting in sugar and carb cravings in the aftermath. This up-regulation of burning glucose can last up to 24 hours. Too much anaerobic exercise – chronic cardio – ends up programing the body to prefer glucose as fuel, both during the workout and throughout the day.

What’s more, the difficulty and lack of oxygen push the body/brain into a state of high stress, activating the fight-or-flight stress response. The resulting high cortisol levels, as we looked at in the last post, increase the carb cravings, incite belly fat accumulation and promote inflammation. Giving in to the carbohydrate and sugar cravings cause insulin spikes and further fat storage. 

Chronic cardio produces lactic acid in muscles (the ‘burn’ sensation) and increases the risk of injury and trauma to joints and connective tissues. These workouts – too difficult, too long and too often – compromise the immune system and lead to illness. They destroy white blood cells, suppress testosterone levels, and accelerate ageing. In the end, and combined with a poor diet and other negative lifestyle factors, they lead to burnout.

Chronic cardio is the reason why so many people say, “No matter how much exercise I do, I can’t lose weight”.

Women doing healthy aerobic exercise.

What’s So Good about Aerobic Exercise?

Workouts conducted below 180-minus-your age are Aerobic. Aerobic means ‘with oxygen’. It means the movement is easy enough to utilize oxygen. Fat requires oxygen to burn, hence aerobic exercise burns fat. Two to five hours a week of easily paced aerobic movement (in addition to moving frequently throughout the day) is eccelent for overall health. It optimizes fat metabolism both during the workout and throughout the day. It doubles the normal resting rate of the metabolism and ‘programs’ the body to operate more efficiently at rest. It’s great for cadiovascular function and improves lung capacity. It multiplies the muscle mitochondria, the power-houses of the cells. Aerobic exercise increases the stroke volume of the heart, which is the quantity of blood that is pumped with each beat. It strengthens bones, joints and connective tissues. It enhances performance and recovery, minimizes injury risk and makes the body more resilient for brief, high intensity workouts. And it boosts the immune system by optimizing anti-ageing hormones and enhancing the circulatory system.

Essentially, you can’t go wrong with lots of easy aerobic movement.

Fitness enthusiasts easily find themselves in a state of chronic cardio.

What’s the “Black Hole” of Physical Exercise?

There’s another category of exercise to be aware of: the Black Hole. Workouts which are too difficult to be aerobic but not difficult enough to be ‘brief and intense’ are regarded as being in ‘The Black Hole’. The Black Hole is above 180-minus-your-age, and up to about 85% of maximum heart rate.

This is the classic heart rate zone of Chronic Cardio and it’s where many fitness enthusiats spend much of their time. Exercising at this rate feels productive but it isn’t. It overrides the benefits of aerobic activity without being intense enough to activate the benefits of brief and intense anaerobic workouts. When Chronic Cardio practitioners switch to low-level aerobic exercise they usually feel that they’re not working hard enough to receive any benefit: No Pain, No Gain. But over weeks, months and especially in the long term, the benefits accumulate.

Woman exercising on the beach.

Exercise for Health, Strength and Flexibility

For health, strength and flexibility, frequent aerobic exercise should be combined with brief and infrequent high intensity strength workouts, plus the occasional all-out sprint. 180-minus-your age is the ideal heart rate formula for everybody. A very fit 80 year old may easily sustain a slow jog and remain under his 120 beats, whereas a metabolically compromised 35 year old may tip the balance simply by climbing a few stairs.

And because this exercise model optimizes our gene expression, it guarantees results for both “normal” people who just want to stay in shape as well as for fitness professionals who want to reach their peak performance.

Monitoring your heart rate is easy now with smart watches and apps. Being able to breathe through your nose and maintain a conversation are simple indicators of a healthy pace. And along with following these guidelines, it’s important to increase your daily movement. Move frequently at a slow pace. Take the stairs, walk an extra block, walk around while talking on the phone, stretch, breath deeply, play with your dog, kick a ball, climb a tree, whatever – just find ways to move.

And go to bed early. Dim the lights, switch off. Get yourself a good night’s sleep.

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Credits

Marathon Woman Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash | Woman in a gym Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash | Women in pink marathon Photo by Peter Boccia on Unsplash | Women exercising Photo by Helen Thomas on Unsplash | Running up steps Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash | Woman walking on the beach Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

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