I envision myself with this post standing up in front of a room full of people saying, “Hi. My name is Natalie and I am a cardio addict.”. (Much like an alcoholic or drug addict) Now, I obviously do not believe a love of moderate intensity, long duration cardio is a serious problem like alcoholism or drug addiction. But I do believe, from my personal experience and the scientific evidence, that choosing to perform long periods of aerobic activity on a regular basis has negative effects on a person’s body and is not effective for long-term fat loss.
My love for moderate intensity, long duration cardio began in high school when I started running cross-country. My favorite cross-country practices were the long distant runs that were usually around 13 miles. Then, fast forward to my senior year of high school when I came down with Mono and had to quit my high school soccer team. That was when I joined a gym and began a love affair with the Stairmaster. In my late teens and early twenties, I would often spend at least an hour on the Stairmaster a day and sometimes more. I did not do it because I wanted to loose weight. It was almost a form of meditation for me and I also liked the “runner’s high”. During these years, I also started weight training. This led to me competing in natural bodybuilding in my twenties and even more cardio to lean down for the shows. I continued this routine of heavy lifting, long duration cardio, and hours in the gym until I began having children at the age of thirty.
At that time, things started changing. Due to my children, I began having less time to spend in the gym. But instead of decreasing the time I was spending with both lifting and cardio, I kept doing cardio and did very little weight training. Also, I felt so poorly during my pregnancies that I did not feel up to the effort that resistance training required. After each subsequent pregnancy, it became increasing difficult to return to resistance training. So, by the time I had my third child, I was only doing moderate intensity cardio and for up to two hours a day.
This was also the point when this former cardio queen’s body began to respond in a negative manner to this exercise routine. These are the major things that I noticed:
- fluid retention (noticeable in my hands, feet, and calves)
- increased episodes of illness with increased recovery time
- nagging injuries and aches/pains
- increased appetite and cravings
- decreased fulfillment from the cardio and no longer getting a “runner’s high”
So, are you wondering what happened to me? I did at the time, but now I understand that low to moderate intensity, long duration cardio elevated the levels of cortisol in my body. Without the presence of certain other hormones (which will be discussed below), cortisol increases muscle loss in arms and legs, results in excess fat around the belly, results in water retention, and interrupts proper insulin usage. The bottom line is that even though I was sweating buckets, I was retaining fluid. I would wake up with swollen fingers and have swollen ankles and feet by the end of the day. I also had a slower resting metabolism due to decreased muscle mass. You may be wondering why it took so many years for this situation to develop. There are two answers to this question. First, the long-term effects of a cortisol dominant state often take years to develop and second, stress also increases cortisol levels. When I first began my life as a cardio queen, I was in high school and did not have a lot of life stresses. But as I got older, had children, worked, and started homeschooling; I definitely increased my stress levels exponentially. This dramatic increase in stress further exasperated my cortisol issues.
So, how did I change things? Approximately 2.5 years ago, I dropped the long duration cardio and switched to resistance circuit training and short duration, high intensity cardio. I was spending at most 5 hours a week exercising (compared to up to 14 before) and within a short time, was noticeably leaner. I also had more energy, less illness, and significantly less cravings. I changed my routine for two reasons. First, my old way of doing things was not working anymore and was making me miserable. Second, I had learned about the hormonal affect exercise has.
Here is the scoop on hormones and exercise:
Earlier in the post, I explained the effect that excessive cortisol has on the body. But in the presence of human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone, the result is extremely different. The combination of these three hormones results in the blocking of muscle breakdown, release of belly fat, and enhanced fat burning. The combination of high intensity interval training and resistance exercise causes a release of all of these three hormones and sets the stage for improved and sustainable body composition.
With all the knowledge that I have, you would think that I would never turn to long duration cardio again. But I think I will always be a cardio queen at heart. I have to check myself at times, especially at stressful times, to make sure I choose intellectually what form of exercise to perform, instead of choosing emotionally. I only wish that I had learned all of this in my twenties, instead of my thirties! But better late than never!
So, if anyone of you out there love to do your cardio but are no longer getting results, why don’t you change up your exercise choices and see what happens. You can always go back to your old ways, but you will never know if something works better if you do not try it!