Do you REALLY need cardio?
Photo by Gabin Vallet

Do you REALLY need cardio?

Do you have a “love-hate” relationship with cardio? 

I DEFINITELY do. Let me count the ways.

On one hand, after a good run or spin class, you feel that “high.” The sweat is cathartic You are detoxed. That playlist you would never disclose publicly absolutely rocked.

On the other hand, it is time consuming. It can be boring. You can only queue up so much on the Netflix app. 

So the question is, are there any really good reasons to do cardio? Does it get you results? And what role does it play in weight management?

And the ultimate question is, does cardio get you results? What role does it play in weight management and overall fitness?

Do we really need cardio?

This is a question I have been trying to answer for years. I have asked different trainers, read every article I could get my Google on, and done my own research – i.e., by doing cardio versus not doing cardio. 

My conclusion is only my truth, but here it is: to achieve and maintain my ideal weight, cardio has to be a part of the formula, especially for someone who would not otherwise have an extremely active job, like most of us. So if you are a waitress, or a hairdresser, or a persoal assistant, you may be running around and on your feet all day. Not to mention, probably lifting a lot of heavy items or constantly keeping your arms moving. This type of work already has actviity built into it. Where you have to be concerned is a job where you are doing the majority of your work behind a computer, especially now, when your computer is 10 feet away.

woman in gray shirt sitting on brown couch
The new normal? When your bed can be your offic,e kitchen, and place to hang all day, you would be well served finding a way to stay active and away from it. Photo by Marga Santoso

I will spend the rest of this article explaining the highlights of what supports the conclusion that cardio is necessary, but not sufficient for weight management. 

Why cardio supports weight management : The CICO Equation

If you want to lose weight, the Calories in Calories out or “CICO” principle still applies. You need to be burning more calories than you are consuming to be in a calorie deficit. As I said in my post about metrics, consciously or unconsciously, people who lose or maintain weight are eating around the same or less calories than their bodies are burning.

The basic energy balance equation is as follows: Calories in = Calories out

CI=CO (BMR + TEF + TEA + NEAT)

.  Here are the parts of the eqation, broken down:

  • CI – what you consume in food, drinks, gum 
  • CO= BMR +TEF +TEA + NEAT = Your basal metabolic rate + thermic effect of food + thermic effect of acivity + non-exercise thermogenesis
    • BMR calories are what you need to keep your body alive and your organs functioning properly.
    • TEF is the Thermic effect of food, what you burn eating and digesting food.
    • TEA is the Thermic effect of activity, e.g., the number of calories you burn from intentional exercise 
    • NEAT is what you burn through uinstructured movement throughout your day, like walking your dog, cleaning up the kitchen, running after your kids, doing errands, or walking back and forth to the bathroom. 

The most significant aspects of the equations are calories in, and calories out through TEA and NEAT. Therefore, cardio contributes to more calories burned through TEA.

Even with cardio, it’s still mostly about diet “CI”

Even if you are a cardio bunny, you need to recognize that you can’t escape being mindful of your diet. Even if you do several hours of cardio a day, it only takes say, one blueberry muffin to totally cancel out an hour of walking or a 3 mile run. Just like people have a distorted idea of how many calories they are consuming, the same goes for calories burned. It may feel like you just burned off a 1000 calories during spin, but in reality it’s only about 400. That doesn’t make up for bottomless brunch. The more you are aware of that, the more it will make more sense not to throw away the $45 dollars you just spent to take that SoulCycle class.

So why bother doing cardio?

So you may be thinking, all right, why don’t I just focus on “calories in” and really watch my diet? As you will probably notice, the CI part of the equation is significant. So you may ask me, why can’t you just have less calories in, i.e., eat less? Well, that’s a logical thought, but a flawed one. First of all, constantly restricting calories is not a fun thing. Second, even when we track calories diligently, we grossly underestimate the number of calories we are eating, often by 20 percent or more. Burning calories through exercise means you don’t have to cut as many calories from your diet—that is, as long as you don’t compensate by eating more after your workout. And that is the ultimate downfall of cardio – the “food as reward” syndrome.

Cardio protects you against disease and depression 

As its name implies, cardio is an important pillar of a healthy cardiovascular system, which starts with your heart. As a personal story, I started having chest pains coming out of nowhere in late 2019. I always felt tired, and my hands and feet were always freezing, even in the sweltering summer. After consulting medical advice, it was revealed that my circulation was very poor and part of that was that I was not getting enough cardiovascular exercise, even though I was working out for an hour a day. My doctor recommended that I walk up  to an hour every day; this happened to coincide with the beginning of the pandemic where that was the main exercise option as gyms close. After I did this, I felt better, had more positive energy, and much better blood flow throughout my body. 

This blog is about overall fitness, and exercise is not just a means to an end – it’s a way for us to express ourselves, feel good, and maintain our spiritual and mental well-being. As we all get older, whether you are in your 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond, cardiovascular health is critical to your health.

According to the CDC, to help prevent chronic cardiovascular disease or severe anxiety and depression, adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity. So cardio is not just for your vanity, but for your longevity. Say YES to getting old. It’s better than the alternative.

Other reasons to say yes to cardio 

Cardio can be a great warm up to lifting weights. There is some debate in the fitness community over whether one should do cardio or weights first, but generally, as long as you are doing LISS and not extremely strenuous cardio, you can use that to warm up for yoga, lifting, or other strength training activities AND also burn calories. Also, because you will already be burning calories, whatever you do after cardio will continue that momentum. 

  • Cardio helps you burn more calories in one workout. Once you achieve your target heart rate zone, your blood is pumping faster, and thereforeyour body is burning more calories.
  • LISS (meaning low-intensity steady state) cardio is the ultimate active recovery. You can only do HIIT or strength train a certain amount of times a week. The results you are after happen during recovery, not the work. While you are resting your muscles, cardio like walking will help you continue to burn calories and also circulate blood to aid muscles in their recovery. Double win!  

For an explanation of LISS and HIIT and how they fit into a winning workout formula, see my post on the winning workout formula post here.

How to make cardio part of your life, not an extra burden you resent

The good news is that if you take reasonable measures to stay active outside of the gym – taking walks, walking as your commute,  standalone cardio won’t be as critical. Unfortunately, we are still transitioning out of COVID and a time period where we are/were not commuting, actively walking around the office, going and grabbing coffee, or running a lot of errands. Therefore, getting as much “TEA” as you can, wherever you can, is a good way to manage your weight. Cardio is a great way to do that, and so is the other element we haven’t covered yet, NEAT, which will be covered in a future post. 

woman carrying dog while standing
Walking, and even carrying, your dog can be “cardio.” As if you needed another excuse to get a COVID puppy.
Photo by Humphrey Muleba

Also, cardio does not mean you have to push yourself until your lungs collapse. We have covered high-intensity cardio and its benefits, but there can be a slippery slope between wiping yourself out in the morning with burpees and feeling like you have the right to relax (or work) on the sofa all day. More frequent and consistent bouts of LISS, like walking, will keep you active and moving. HIIT can be a 1-2 a week challenge, but not meant to replace being active.

What’s right for you? 

As long as you are getting cardio in, the type of cardio doesn’t matter as much. It depends on what is right for you and what your body is telling you. Some days when I wake up, my body is telling me to just go on a long easy walk. Some days I am full of energy and feel like bouncing around. For me personally, I aim to do LISS cardio 4-5 times a week, and HIIT 1-2 times a week. I also make sure I have LISS-only days so that I have time for recovery and not to do HIIT two days in a row. HIIT is similar to weight lifting in that it causes microtears in your muscles. Not giving those enough time to repair can hinder your results and make you more prone to injury. 

LISS is also easier to work into your work day or “ADLs” – activities of daily life. In my chapter on the workout formula for success, I have said that you can walk or do other light cardio while on one of your numerous zoom calls. Read the post for some guidelines on when this is more appropriate in corporate culture There are definitely at least a few blocks in your day where you can walk and talk. You can also make that deliberate, by setting some time to walk and  talk to catch up with a friend or colleague.

In case I cannot walk during calls as much as I would like, I do 30 minutes of “insurance” LISS cardio a day. This is intentional cardio that I do so that no matter what, I get my cardio in for the day even if the rest of the day is disruptive to that process. I usually use the cardio either as a standalone walking recovery workout or a warm up for a 15-30 strength training session.

Key takeaway

Cardio doesn’t have to equate with unbearable labor. Being active, including doing things you enjoy, can be cardio. You can find ways to be active throughout the day as much as possible by working it into your job and being purposeful about moving.

More: What’s the best exercise to lose weight? Cardio or lifting weights.  (Flowin)

Cardio for weight loss: What to know (SHAPE)

Leave a Reply