The Cost of Cardio

by Charlotte on February 15, 2008 · 24 comments

An interesting thing happened to me over the past several weeks & I don’t quite know how to explain it. First let me tell you the numbers.
Jan 28 – Feb 2: I gained 0.5 lbs per day, for a net gain of 3.5 pounds
Feb 4 – Feb 8: I lost 0.5 lbs per day, for a net loss of 3.0 pounds
Feb 11 – Feb 15: I gained about 0.5 a day, for a net gain (again) of 3.5 pounds

My weight normally fluctuates several pounds up and down over the course of a month (and sometimes in a day, if I had sushi the night before) but never before has it been this methodical & this much in one day. In an effort to figure it out, I looked back at my daily log & discovered that the first week I was burning over 1000 cals/workout. The second week, due to normal life complications, I had to cut my workouts short and only burned 400-700 cals/workout. This week I’m back up to my 800-1200 cals/workout. That’s right folks, the longer and harder I worked out the more weight I gained. The less I worked out the more weight I lost.

What in the name of little green apples is going on here?
This goes against everything we’re told about exercise, particularly cardio a.k.a. The Almighty Fat Burner. The American Heart Association officially recommends 30-60 minutes of cardio for weight maintenance and 60+ minutes for weight loss. According to this, I should be losing weight by the bucket. The second week (the one I lost all the weight), my workouts were under an hour & for the first time in years I actually took 3 days off of working out when I went to visit my brother & sister (Hi guys! Hi! I miss you!!).

There is another factor, of course: nutrition. It makes sense to me that the more energy you expend in exercise, the more energy your body will take in in fuel. But theoretically that would just equal me out.
The Marathon Effect
My Case of the Creeping Poundage is not totally without precedent. When I was training for a marathon last year (that I never ran because of a stress fracture in my shin – but I did do 18 miles on my own so it wasn’t a total failure), I discovered that many runners experience weight gain when they up their mileage – even into the elite levels. Mark Sisson, a former Ironman, says that he gained weight and bodyfat at the peak of his training. He attributes this fact to excess cardio. I wrote to him asking about what exactly is chronic cardio and he answered me (!) with this.

“Intense Cardio (long stretches of a sustained 80% of max heart rate) raises cortisol levels, increases oxidative damage, systemic inflammation, depresses the immune system and decreases fat metabolism.”

He recommends (and practices) a few days a week of low-to-moderate intensity cardio (like brisk walking) with 1-2 days a week of short, very high intensity interval sprints (he sprints for 20-40 seconds then rests & repeats 4-8 times). Finally he adds 3 days a week of weight lifting. This workout would be substantially less than what I am doing now.

The Sugar Effect
Long stretches of high intensity exercise also increase cravings for sugar. I couldn’t find actual research to back me up but anecdotally this seems to hold true both in endurance athletes & bodybuilders. It also seems to me why there is such a huge industry making gels, gus & carb drinks (all of which are straight sugar) for runners and cyclists.

When I get home from a really intense workout, sometimes I’ll be shaky and weak and nauseous – symptoms that only pass after I’ve thrown back a handful of gummy worms. It’s funny, the craving will be so intense that I’ll eat things that I normally don’t ever enjoy, like marshmallows, circus peanuts or sugar on a spoon. The days I workout less, it seems my cravings are easier to control. My appetite in general is also less because, like we all know, exercise makes you hungry.

Little Green Apples
Have any of you experienced something like this? Please say I’m not the only one! So what to do about it? I can hear the sound of a thousand “duh’s” and heads being slapped as I type this but simply cutting my exercise down is very hard for me. I’ve tried the cardio diet before with some success. I use exercise, especially cardio, to boost my mood & work out my stress and anxiety. I also have a competitive streak that is, well, more than a streak. The last thing is I love a challenge. If I’m not being challenged, I get bored.

And yet, the weight gain has got to stop! I don’t want to lose weight but I definitely don’t want to keep gaining it. I’m thinking this needs an experiment. Perhaps if I call it research then that will motivate me enough to do what I need to do:) Any advice for me? Sympathy?? Want to throw things at me? I want to hear it all!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

TJ February 15, 2008 at 4:04 pm

Not to sound too much like your mother, but I would _strongly_ encourage you to focus on overall health and not just weight.

Watching the scale too closely can lead to nasty things like low self esteem, depression, and eating disorders.

(I usually only step on the scale once every month or so)

I know… I’m a man and therefore not subjected to the same level of harsh critiquing that women suffer from. And I’m admittedly a little pudgy around middle section.

I’m just saying it’s my personal experience that focusing on health instead of weight me a happier person.


TJ February 15, 2008 at 4:07 pm

makes me a happier person…

My first post should have finished with “… it’s my personal experience that focusing on health instead of weight makes me a happier person.”


Rachel February 15, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Hi Charlotte! I hear ya girl. Intense exercise is hard to give up once you really get into it. But you never know how you will react to a change until you try it, right? :-) it seems to me that the Monkey bar gym daily workouts, if done every day, give a nice balance of both “intense sprints” (or intervals) and weight training. I think all that’s really left to do is the light cardio that Mark suggests. I would try doing 4 days a week of light running along wth just the MBG and your normal active lifestyle, and see what happens. Who knows, you might find yourself more in balance and at peace from the reduced workload on your body – and feel more in control and less anxious. Less sugar will help with all this! That’s my (very amature) advice, which I think I’m going to try as well! God knows I need to lay off the chocolate these days (my downfall).


Rachel February 15, 2008 at 4:10 pm

oh and BTW, I just bought the Portable Monkey Bar Jungle Gym! I’m so excited!!!


alison February 15, 2008 at 5:01 pm

i have been reading quite a bit lately about doing short, intense cardio and concentrating more on lifting, so i just started my own little experiment. i’m in my second week of doing pretty much what mark suggests. and so far i’m feeling pretty good about it. i’ve lost a few pounds and my weight hasn’t been doing the see saw that it used to do where i would gain three or four pounds overnight – i’ve stayed much more consistent. plus, i might be crazy, but my body looks better to me, too. i’m giving this new (to me) strategy about a month and a half before i’ll consider myself a convert, but i’m feeling pretty good so far…


azusmom February 15, 2008 at 5:52 pm

Hey Rachel, can you let us know how you like the portable MBG? I’m really curious. Also, did you get the regular or the split, and what’s the difference between the two?



Stephanie Quilao February 15, 2008 at 6:42 pm

Interesting post. I’m thinking back to when I was running the long miles too 10+, and I never gained weight. Mostly I had toe nails fall out and my periods became really irregular or non-existant. Bodies can react differently to.

Now that I’m in maintenance mode, I’ve cut back on the cardio time to 45 min vs. 60-80 but doing higher resistance and inclines. I’m finding that my body likes it more, and some weight has been coming off on its own without me consciously trying to. I wonder too if that’s just because I’m not as focused or worried about the scale anymore so my stress levels are naturally down thus not evoking the cortisol spikes. I still have issues with sugar though. My doc told me that the sugar spikes are usually a need for more protein, so eat protein instead of sugar. I find that it really does help. It’s not as yummy as a cookie but the pangs die off quickly.


Gena February 15, 2008 at 8:07 pm

I’ve experienced that, too, but I always thought it was because of my ravenous appetite. I know I was eating way more when I did tons of cardio, but maybe that wasn’t the reason for the weight gain!


AT22 February 15, 2008 at 9:05 pm

I’ve experienced the exact thing – which is why I’ve changed my workouts as referenced in an earlier comment…on another topic…on another day :). I was having the hardest time losing weight when I was exercising the most. As I’ve decreased a bit and added sprints and intervals, the weight is coming off and staying off. And I think my body looks better, too, like Alison said.

If I don’t exercise, I naturally eat less, but I don’t think it’s as much about that as it is about the items Mark laid out for you (and recent literature and studies show this, too). Exercising less but smarter (more intense with less volume) works well for me – of course everyone’s hormone response, etc, will be different.

If you are shaky after workouts, it’s most likely due to low blood sugar, as you may already know, and it is obviously corrected by a dose of sugar, which you naturally are craving. Since I’ve switched to the Paleo-type diet, I have none of those symptoms (which I used to have all the time unless I ate a nice carbo-loaded snack right before my workout). I rarely, if ever, get low blood sugar – and before this it afflicted me for years.

I’d try the experiment – cut down cardio, up lifting if you are not now, and maybe cut down on volume. If you must workout every day or most days (I would totally understand this), maybe switch to something less intense, like yoga, for one or two days, doing your MBG workout on 2 days and cardio on 2 days. (Or something like that.) That’s still 6 days a week! And I’d love to see your results. It would be fun to compare notes.


Andrew February 15, 2008 at 10:36 pm

Stop doing so much cardio and start lifting heavy weights.


Kristy February 16, 2008 at 12:07 am

I experience the EXACT same thing. I have a pretty rigid diet, so I know if I’m eating anything out of line. Sometimes I’m so zapped by a workout that I have to have an immediate sugar boost because I feel so weak. I’ve also noticed that if I don’t have the opportunity to work out for a couple days I tend to lose a pound or two. I’ve always thought that was a little odd.

I’m really having problems trying to figure out the best workout system. I usually do 45-60 minutes of cardio and 30-35 minutes of weights 6X a week (I do different muscles each day – biceps/shoulders, back, quads/calves, triceps/chest, abs, and glutes/hamstrings). I want to build big muscles, but I also would like to get down maybe one more dress size. It’s so tricky because I know you need recovery time, but don’t you also need exercise most every day to lose weight???? I just don’t know what to do!


Charlotte February 16, 2008 at 4:37 am

TJ – Point taken:) It’s not really about my weight, the number, per se, but more about the the number is indicating about my fitness regimine. It’s only a measurement tool – I’m not concerned with the actual number. Besides, if you sound like my mother, you come by it honestly;)

Rachel – glad to know that I’m not the only one addicted to intense exercise. And chocolate!! Def. let us know how you like the portable MBG.

Alison – thanks for telling me about your experiment! I think you are on the right track & I plan on joining you:)

Steph – You’re right, it is different for each individual. Glad you found a healthy balance:)

Gena – I’m sure appetite plays a role in it too. So many variables!

AT22 – Yes, yes!!! Let’s compare notes! I’m starting my “new” routine on Monday. Def. let me know how it works out for you too. Glad to know I’m not the only one that makes this mistake.

Andrew – Yay, you’re back!! And very concise. I will do just that.


Charlotte February 16, 2008 at 4:39 am

Kristy – you sound JUST like me!! You pretty much described my current workout regimine. It is a problem, finding that balance. It’s also hard trying to build muscle but lose fat at the same time. Keep me posted on how you tweak your workout and I’ll for sure let you know what happens with my experiment!


Lucas February 16, 2008 at 4:13 pm

Charlotte – lifting can definitely satisfy your cometitive streak! What’s more competitive than trying to become stronger than you’ve ever been before? Sure, you’re competing with yourself, but it’s fun to kick your own butt sometimes. And I’ve personally gotten the best physique & health results when I focus on increasing strength.

And Kristy – I think you’d get better results if you dropped the bodypart split, lifted weights 3x a week using a few compound exercises to work out your entire body, and just did cardio on the days you don’t lift.

Just my 2 cents. I can definitely empathise with feeling the need to exercise in order to feel “normal.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t switch up your routine!


Kjirsten February 17, 2008 at 11:18 pm

I get that. I experienced the weight gain effect when I was anorexic exercising 3 hours a day, on about 4-500 calories. This infuriated me and eventually I gave up and collapsed in a hospital bed for a month. It had all been going “great” (if you call dying great) until I kept adding the cardio. While I’m sure other things were in play other than the 3hrs pf cardio, I’m sure that didn’t help my cause. Ultimately for me it was good because it forced me into the help I needed.
Now I am a competitive athlete (cross country and track) and run a bout 60-70 miles a week, I have not experienced weight gain (I guess my body considers this moderation, it averages 7-9 hours a week)but I have also not lost any weight, even when I’ve tried by cutting calories. My guess is that if I lowered my miles I’d lose weight and that if I upped it more I’d be gaining weight. But alas my weight is perfect for my sport and performance, as is my mileage.

All this to say is I agree that this happens and the only way to stop it is to cut back on the cardio.


AT22 February 19, 2008 at 8:01 pm

Would you like me to post my workouts for the past few weeks? I don’t keep strict measurements (I know, how can I tell if I’m gaining/losing/bf/inches? OMG!), but I will log my weight about once a week, at least, just for you!

I did do a pinch with my calipers this weekend and it was down from my usual – I haven’t taken that pinch in months and months because I was so frustrated. I just pinch one site – it used to always be 11 or so. This time it was almost down to 10 on the reading. That’s the first + for this! I have some weird weeks coming up, so I might be working out EVEN LESS than less. Holy cow, that’s gonna hurt.


Charlotte February 19, 2008 at 9:05 pm

Kjirsten – I find your experience completely fascinating. I’m glad you listened to your body and got help. I’m also glad that you have found a happy exercise level & you are still able to compete!

AT22- Just track your “progress” however you see fit (body fat or weight or just fit of clothes – whatever!) and I’ll post your results with ours! The more people in the experiment, the better:) Glad you are having success with it!


Tyler April 6, 2010 at 1:16 pm

I remember I watched a documentary on 12 people who were out of shape and decided to train for a marathon. They had 12 months to get ready for it and about 8 of the 12 who started training actually ran and finished the race. I was quite impressed because most of the runners were completely out of shape when they started.

What improved was their endurance and VO 2 max readings, but most of the women did not lose any weight. It's clear that for some people this type of cardio is not the best choice for weight loss.

I also remember reading about your body adjusting for long intense training. Sometimes you can trick you body into thinking it is in some type of survival state where perhaps it won't burn any fat because it feels it may need to hold on to it for survival reasons. I can't explain it very well, but it may be a factor. Another quick example of this may be how you don't burn any fat when you starve yourself. Your body reacts to different situations and weight loss and fat burn might not always be the final result.


SeaBreeze April 6, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Welcome to my life. I too have found that "the longer and harder I worked out the more weight I gained. The less I worked out the more weight I lost."

Cutting myself off from sugary sweets completely helped with this, but now that I am being more methodical about my water intake I find my weight doesn't move much at all. I may be "over hydrated" but I don't know for sure yet.


Sydnie April 26, 2013 at 3:58 pm

This is why I stick to about 30 minutes. I’m not training for anything, just wanting to lose weight. But I’ve always heard that weight just fluctuates naturally but if you track your weight over time you will see that ulttimately your weight goes down with consistent exercise.


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