Mind and Body
You're Probably Doing Cardio All Wrong: The Truth About Training Smarter
Whether you’re in walk-your-dog, half-marathon or Zion-Williamson-level shape, you probably know cardio benefits the body. Exercises like swimming laps or running stairs force the heart to pump blood faster throughout your body. Repeated over time, the process relaxes your blood vessels, which helps the cardiovascular system operate more efficiently.
Cardio, or aerobic exercise, strengthens the heart, aids weight loss, prevents diseases like diabetes, stroke, and cancer, and lowers mortality.
Aerobic exercise, meaning “with oxygen,” relies on the capacity of the cardiorespiratory system (the lungs and heart) to provide oxygen to the body and muscle tissue’s capacity to use it. Anaerobic exercise like sprinting or jumping, entails short intense bursts of activity, relying on stored energy sources in muscle tissue not inhaled oxygen, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
Raising your heart rate for about 150 to 300 minutes per week, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ recommended guidelines, can also help lift mood, reduce risk of anxiety and depression, improve sleep, and manage stress.
"Cardio is fantastic, but you have to apply it intelligently.
But the way you incorporate cardio into your routine is important. Too much can be damaging, causing diminished performance and injury that sidelines you from other physical activity.
“Cardio is fantastic, but you have to apply it intelligently,” Jason Walsh, Rise Nation founder and trainer to Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Aniston, Emma Stone, Brie Larson, and John Krasinski tells Inverse. “You’ve got to train smarter.”
Correcting these cardio myths will make you healthier and keep you injury free.
Myth 1: Cardio Belongs in the Gym or on the Track, and It Hurts
Meeting the recommended guidelines for aerobic activities doesn’t require entering the “pain cave,” as one doctor calls the spin studio. There are infinite ways to move your body and reap cardio’s metabolic benefits.
“You don’t have to be dripping sweat to get a good workout in,” Jenna Willis, celebrity fitness coach, tells Inverse.
People think that they have to hit an hour of cardio and sit on the same machine for a minimum of 45 minutes, Willis says. “They’re bored out of their mind and they’re dreading the experience. And that’s not the case. There are so many other options for cardio that make it more exciting.”
Some unexpected activities that can mix up your elliptical, treadmill, and stationary bike routine include rock climbing, hiking, yoga, pick-up sports, canoeing, and even hilly walks.
All these activities offer the same physiological advantages as gym time, as long as heart rate is elevated, Willis says. During your workout, aim to reach 50-85 percent of your maximum heart rate per the American Heart Association’s recommendations. You can calculate your own target heart rate here.
If cardio feels torturous or boring, try something new or get outside. Research suggests exercising outdoors can be more enjoyable and result in feelings of revitalization, decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression, and energy boosts.
“If you dread it, you won’t do it,” Willis says.
Myth 2: The More Cardio, the Better
One persistent exercise misconception is that daily cardio makes you lose weight and get fit. But in fact, too much cardio can be damaging, stunt your fitness progress, and even cause damage to muscle tissues or joints in the long term.
If you have any preexisting joint or muscle problems, frequent cardio (long sessions more than five times per week) can exacerbate the issues.
Overdoing cardio has a cumulative effect. “It might not be that bad in the beginning, but all of a sudden you’ve got tissue problems so you compensate and then you’ve got skeletal problems that cause pain,” says Walsh “It’s progressive degradation of the body.”
Willis agrees. “If you have an imbalance then you’re continuing to enforce those bad patterns or imbalances. They are only going to continue to get worse.”
Walsh encourages establishing a good foundation for cardio exercise before jumping into more intense exercises like endurance running. A good start could include an aerobic base and sound movement patterns, like squats, lunges, and core strength. “If your resting heart rate is below 60 beats per minute, you most likely have a pretty good aerobic base, he explains.
"Make sure that you can crawl, make sure you can walk, and then you can run.
“The word progression, to me, means make sure that you can crawl, make sure you can walk, and then you can run,” Walsh says.
Skip the basics and you may be ok for a while, especially if you are young. But over time, poor form will likely result in injury and pain.
“Everybody thinks that they can run, right?” Walsh asks. “But most people just really have the absolute worst mechanics. I’ve seen people run and it looked like frogs in a blender.”
Myth 3: Cardio Makes You Lose Weight
To tone up and drop fat, people can spend hours on cardio machines. But steady-state cardio over long periods may not aid weight loss as intended.
"In relation to cardio, what happens is people generally do too much.
“It’s a catch-22, when we talk about keeping muscle and lowering body fat,” Walsh says. “In relation to cardio, what happens is people generally do too much.”
Doing a cardio workout for longer than 40 minutes, over five times per week can cause the body to start metabolizing muscle tissue, Walsh explains.
“You’re going to actually undo a lot of the training,” Walsh says. “You’re not going to be able to put on that great metabolic machinery, which is muscle. Muscle increases your metabolism. It’s your engine.”
The best way to tap into cardio’s benefits and maintain muscle tone is to do exercises that challenge multiple muscle groups, like walking at an incline with weights or charging on the stairmaster.
Myth 4: Repetition Leads to Progress
Research shows making exercise a habit is key to staying active and healthy. But sometimes routine can be the enemy of progress. Too much repetition of the same workouts or the same pattern can stall the body’s progress.
The body adapts to the stress that happens during exercise, Walsh explains. “Adaptation is a response to the stress. Biology will always seek efficiency to minimize stress.”
To avoid a plateau, Walsh and Willis encourage changing nutritional and workout plans every month or so. But this doesn’t mean overhauling everything you’re doing. Small adjustments can do the trick.
"You don’t need a heart rate monitor to know if you’re lying to yourself.
“It is as simple as switching up the resistance, switching up the incline, switching up the speed, switching up intervals to 30 seconds or 60 seconds. It doesn’t have to be these massive changes,” Willis says.
Walsh and Willis both stress listening to your body and pushing it when you can.
“You know if you’re slacking and if you’re slacking, you won’t see as much change,” Willis says. “You don’t need a heart rate monitor to know if you’re lying to yourself.”
Myth 5: Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Any kind of cardio can be beneficial, but emerging research suggests high-intensity interval training (HIIT) burns more fat than traditional cardio, such as a 30-minute jog. HIIT sessions often range from 20 to 30 minutes, but the fat burning that results is estimated to last hours after the workout ends. Rather than zoning out on the elliptical or becoming bored, HIIT demands attention to push through bursts of intense sprinting or exercises.
HIIT typically involves brief periods of sprinting or completing exercises at full intensity — that heart-pounding, can’t-get-a-breath-of-air feeling — followed by periods of rest or low-intensity exercise. Often, HIIT includes exercises like sprints, burpees, mountain climbers, and jump squats.
“By the end of that work, you should be breathing heavily because what you’re doing when you’re breathing heavily is creating something like exhaust, the fumes of burning fat,” Walsh says.
Walsh calls this effect excess post oxygen intake (EPOC), colloquially known as “exercise afterburn,” which means elevated metabolic rate after exercise. A 2013 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise found that the afterburn can continue up to 14 hours after 45 minutes of vigorous, high-intensity exercise.
But HIIT isn’t the only form of exercise with aftereffects. Strength training, which involves using weights or body weight to induce muscle contraction and build muscle tissue, also leads to gains after the workout ends. It can include exercises like squatting with kettlebells or doing deadlifts.
“I’m the biggest advocate of strength training over anything else,” Willis says. “The more muscle you build, the more calories you’re burning because muscle burns more than fat.”
The Cardio Strength Combo You Love
The way to incorporate cardio intelligently is to avoid the common pitfalls above and find exercises you love.
"Working out is a commitment but the sacrifice is worth it.
A balanced approach combines cardio, HIIT, strength training, and plenty of rest and recovery, Willis says. She recommends starting with cardio two to three times a week and strength training twice a week. Again, that doesn’t mean killing yourself on the treadmill or spending an hour and a half on the elliptical. A 45-minute hike, swim, or yoga session will suffice.
“If you want longevity and a better quality of life, the best investment you’re going to make, I swear to you, time and time again, is working out and is getting stronger,” Walsh says. “It’s going to affect every single aspect of your life in a positive way.”