Cardio queens, adrenaline junkies, runners with a constant high and cardioholics, please stand up! (Then sit down. And then plyo jump back up. Repeat down and up until your heart rate is in zone 4.) New research is afoot in the great cardio debate and — I’m going to break this to you gently, so don’t run away — you’re not gonna like it. The skim-worthy version of the no less than six new studies on the subject of cardiovascular exercise, heart health and life outcomes is this: People who do some cardio live longer and healthier lives than people who don’t do any. But people who do lots of cardio have more heart problems and die sooner.
I know. Kinda stopped my heart too. (Har!) Because of course I am a reformed cardioholic myself. (For any newbies, I used to exercise up to 6 hours a day, most of it cardio, and ended up suppressing my own thyroid, gaining ten pounds, losing my freaking mind and ending up in eating disorder treatment for compulsive over-exercise. Plus I got to be the freak of the week on a bunch of TV shows and in magazine articles thereby becoming the de facto cautionary tale in all discussions of exercise bulimia. My parents are so proud!) To this day I’m still an adrenaline junkie and if left unchecked will exercise way more than is necessary.
Confession: This past month since I’ve had unlimited access to all of LifeTime Fitness‘ amazing programs I’ve been working out two, sometimes three, times a day. Take Monday, for example, when I did an hour of weight lifting in the morning followed by two hours of puketastic MMA training that night. Or today with an hour of “no limits cardio” in the a.m. and then 1.5 hours of basketball. Yeah. But unlike previous periods of over-exercise, it hasn’t been in an effort to lose weight or “earn” my food. This time it’s more of a ticking-clock problem: I feel like I have such limited time so I have to do! everything! while! I! still! can! And everything is just so much fun!! This is a problem. I know it. I’m working on fixing it. It helps that LifeTime extended my pass for 3 months so now I have a little more time. But the first step is staying accountable, which is why I’m telling you this. My husband and the Gym Buddies are all fully aware of what I’m doing too (again, unlike last time where I did my best to hide it from everyone). And tomorrow I only have one workout scheduled and then I’m relaxing by the pool with the kiddos!
/End overshare/ Back to the research! The key in all of this is defining what exactly constitutes “too much” cardio. This can vary from person to person but in a study of 14,000 runners and 38,000 non-runners conducted by the Mayo Clinic and the American College of Sports Medicine researchers found some very interesting numbers. So how much is “a lot” of cardio? Not as much as you’d think:
The runners with the lowest death rate were those who ran 10-15 miles/week, only ran 2-3 days/week and kept a pace between 10 and 8:30 minutes/mile. Translate that running into any cardio activity* and you’re looking at 20-30 minutes a day, 5 days a week at the high end. Runners who ran more, or more days, or faster, had higher death rates. Check out the tables of the hazard ratios and you’ll see that jumping up to 25+ miles/week or 7 days/week skyrockets your risk of a negative health outcome. Runner’s World‘s Amby Burfoot writes, “What this paper points out is that a lot of people do not understand that the lion’s share of health benefits accrue at a relatively modest level… Beyond 30-60 minutes per day, you reach a point of diminishing returns.”
Over the past 5.5 years of doing these Great Fitness Experiments, this is something I’ve discovered for myself. In fact, it’s become a pet peeve of mine. In a recent interview with College Life Styles, they asked me what the biggest fitness myth is, in my experience. I answered, “That running is the best exercise. Running is great if you love it but I’ve discovered so many people who hate it – or like it but get injured doing it – that are still running all the time because they think it’s the ultimate exercise. Everyone wants to do a marathon but that’s a performance goal, not a health goal.” And while I picked on running (I’m not saying you should never run – I run!) you can substitute “running a marathon” for any large amount of cardio activity.
The bottom line is that you don’t need much cardio to reap the health benefits. Other studies have shown that adding HIIT (high intensity interval training) and lowering the amount of steady-state cardio you do maximizes the health benefits while reducing the risks. Repeat after me: when it comes to your health, more is not better.
But as I pointed out in my confession – there are other reasons people exercise besides their health. I did more than an hour of cardio today because, hey, it was a lot of fun and I didn’t want to miss out on anything! And 5 years ago I proved that I would keep over-exercising even when it was obviously deleterious to my health. As Amby concludes, “Many aspects of exercise and running also follow a U-curve. This is why many people believe the moderate approach is the smartest path to follow. Of course, you’ll never qualify for the Boston Marathon that way. We all have to make our choices.”
He’s right. And it’s not bad to have performance goals! But what his conclusion made me realize is that I need to keep my main goal for exercising - my health – firmly in my mind so that I don’t let over-exercising creep up on me again. I’m not running Boston. I’m not competing for anything. The only thing I’m running for is to stay in my kids’ lives (and their kids’ lives) as long and as happily as possible. And to do that, that may mean not doing a lot of other things. Priorities.
What do you think about this new research – does it support what you already thought or does it freak you out like it did me? (Both?) How much cardio do you normally do? Is it hard for you to cut back?
*Note: researchers were not talking about really low cardio like walking but rather the medium-to-high intensity stuff like jogging, spinning, cycling, and other “aerobics”.