Here's why you might want to do less.
Maybe it was messaging from our mom's generation that we needed to do cardio classes like Jazzercise or Step Aerobics to "stay lean" and "get in shape." Or because we played sports in high school and college we were used to intense conditioning and long practices. It's hard to rewire our brains to learn new information and find ways that support our body as it shows up today. Which to be honest, is never going to be like it was when you were 20.
I recently had a conversation with a client about scaling back the cardio since her goal was to gain more lean muscle mass. She had been conditioned to believe that she needed at least 30 minutes of cardio per day. For her, this looked like running, biking, or a CF workout. She wasn't making the progress she wanted and her body was always feeling tired and achy. The statement that really stuck with me and inspired this post was: "I'm afraid to do less cardio because I don't know what that will look like, will I gain weight?" What this told me was that after all the internal work she was doing surrounding her body image, the number on the scale still held a huge place in how she valued herself and determined her level of athleticism.
We ended the conversation with some journaling prompts for her to complete:
Why do you think you need to do more cardio?
What do you feel doing more would do for you?
Would you still do it if it had no effect on our weight?
You don't exercise yourself into a lean physique. You and eat and live your way into a leaner body composition. Exercise is about physique and fitness development, not fat loss.
More cardio does not equal more progress unless you are training for an endurance-based sport. Many of the women I work with are training to put on more muscle and create a leaner body composition. It's a struggle to delete the subliminal societal messages that have us fearing food and lifting heavy.
How do you know if cardio is impacting you adversely?
Constantly sore, achy joints, pain
Trouble falling and staying asleep
Trouble shedding fat (while in a caloric deficit)
Body holds on to abdominal fat
Feel depleted and worn out after exercising
Absence in motivation, depression, you just feel off
If YOUR overall goal is to grow your muscles SO THAT you can achieve a lean, "toned" physique developing lean muscle tissue is uber-important. This requires strength training.
Building lean muscle requires three things.
stimulus - progressive resistance training
recovery - adequate for the stimulus
adaptation - overload the muscles to work harder each time
Now, although you can’t spot reduce fat from specific parts of your body, you can certainly develop lean muscle in those areas. So it is important that you train the muscles that you want to develop on a regular basis. Recovery refers to several aspects such as rest, nutrition, and adequate sleep. Muscular adaptation is the process in which your muscles undergo physical changes in response to the stimulus you are giving it. Growing bigger and stronger.
The second thing you need to do to have a toned look is to obtain a low enough body fat percentage so that you can see your lean muscle development. If your body fat percentage is too high, you won't be able to see muscle definition. This doesn't mean that the muscle doesn't exist, you can be very strong and fit without definition. If you are training for a look though...this is where dietary changes must come into play. Unfortunately, there is no way around nutrition. If you struggle with excess fat, you will never be able to “out-exercise” a suboptimal diet. If you are training for performance, dieting might hinder the execution of your exercises. You need to have enough intake for your output.
If you are training for aesthetics it's important to be consistent with whatever diet you choose. What’s more important is that you are eating in a way that is sustainable for you – and allows you to get all the nutrients you actually need to thrive. The second thing you need to do is decrease your caloric intake. You must first know how much you are consuming regularly before you start taking food away. This is where you have to strategically decrease your calorie intake, while still eating a sufficient amount of food to keep you satisfied. If it's impossible for you to adhere to your plan then it's not the right plan for you --- or your body is telling you it doesn't feel safe enough to be in a calorie deficit. I do not believe in beating a dead horse or that a person isn't simply trying hard enough. Living a lifestyle that supports fat loss needs to take priority - low stress, good sleep, understanding of nutrient-dense foods.
Let's review, strength training is necessary for building your muscles, but focusing on dietary input is required for changes to body composition. Cardio can help put your body into a caloric deficit, but it has limitations. Strength training overall is the superior method to strengthen your bones. Too much cardio in the form of high-impact movements can negatively affect your joints and bones, leading to things like stress fractures. The stronger your muscles are, from strength training, the easier you will be able to recover from future injuries. This includes things like slips and falls. Cardio intensive training will not have the same effect.
As we age, we are faced with chronic injuries. We all know someone who says they have a "bad back" "bad knees" or neck problems. Stronger muscles are more resilient and less likely to be injured. They can handle larger forces. Many back issues are a result of insufficient strength of the back and postural muscles. Aerobic training won’t do this for you and could possibly lead to overuse injuries. In addition, doctors are always recommending cardio to aid in heart disease, but recent research has shown that higher muscle mass is associated with a lower risk of mortality in people with heart disease.
Instead of aiding in fat loss, too many steady-state and high-intensity cardio sessions a week will actually cause our bodies to hold on to fat, especially around our midsection. This is because it has been proven to increase levels of cortisol. Cortisol, also referred to as the "stress hormone," tends to garner a lot of confusion. While it is essential to the body, as it's responsible for regulating our energy needs and waking us up in the morning, too much can wreak havoc. Namely, high circulating levels signal the body to store fat, especially around the abdomen.
Thyroid hormones are directly responsible for the state of our metabolism and weight. A particular hormone produced by the thyroid, T3 or triiodothyronine, either rises or falls in response to diet and activity. In general, low T3 levels result in a lowered metabolism, which equals fewer calories burned not only during your workouts but overall throughout your day.
Prolonged, intense cardio sessions do just this by decreasing T3 output and potentially impairing future hormonal responses.
Testosterone and HGH (human growth hormone) are two hormones that are extremely important for anyone trying to lose fat and gain muscle. In fact, research has shown that HGH is one of the premier hormones that promote synthesis of protein tissues and aids in metabolizing body fat for energy. Interestingly, steady-state cardio has been shown to lower both testosterone and HGH, which not only inhibits fat loss but can also cause fatigue, hot flashes, irritability, decreased muscle mass, and decreased bone density.
Ironically, the less time you spend performing steady-state aerobic exercise, the better your chances are for fat loss. When compared to high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves short, intense workouts, longer aerobic workouts were found to be less effective at reducing subcutaneous body fat.
The reason steady-state cardio is less effective is because it lacks the intensity that HIIT offers, which prompts the release of HGH (as we spoke of earlier) and catecholamines like adrenaline and norepinephrine. These hormones stimulate the release of fat from fat stores to be used for energy and were found to be released in negligible amounts during steady-state aerobic exercise.
Steady-state cardio also lacks the "afterburn" effect that HIIT offers. Afterburn, otherwise termed excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), happens after bursts of intense exercise (such as in HIIT workouts) when the body attempts to repair itself after a tough workout. This results in more calories burned not only during the exercise but up to 48 hours afterward as well. But more HIIT isn't the answer either. Do the least amount of cardio possible and use it strategically to support strength training. Ideally, you probably only need 1-2 HIIT sessions per week to see a benefit.
Remain committed to consistency. You can be doing more and trying harder, but if your trying hard is not working, more trying hard isn't going to make it work.
If you want body recomposition, you have to keep it happy and feeling safe. Give it food, give it activity, give it attention. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, trying to reduce stress levels, nourishing yourself through nutrient-dense foods and plenty of water, and be patient as you wait to see what happens.