There’s something gratifying about a workout that makes your sweaty clothes stick to your skin and your hair a hopeless mess of frizz and flyaways. No doubt, a heart-pumping cardio session can eliminate fat, along with stress and frustration.
Done right, there are many benefits to performing aerobic exercise. However, we’ve all seen the cardio bunny at our gym. It’s the person who runs on the treadmill for hours on end or the person using the elliptical with minimal resistance, going as fast as he or she can. And how often do you see that person leaning on the rails of the StepMill?
Whether you prefer to perform cardio or would rather stick with the weights, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of aerobic exercise.
Pro: The Brain Benefit
Research suggests that aerobic exercise helps improve neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Basically, cardio exercise improves how your existing brain cells function and helps create new ones.
Pro: Improved Sleep
As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can improve the quality of your nighttime sleep. People who exercise regularly may reduce their risk of sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and other sleep disorders. If you still struggle to fall (and stay) asleep, consider a melatonin supplement.
Pro: Reduced Risk of Heart Disease
When you work out aerobically, you put stress on your cardiovascular system. Over time, this system adapts and becomes stronger. The result? Your blood pressure may lower and HDL levels (the good cholesterol) may increase. This increased efficiency means less work for your body, heart and blood vessels — reducing your risk of diabetes, coronary artery disease, heart attack and more.
Logging countless hours of cardio can leave you physically and mentally exhausted. If you’re a marathon runner, keep on running, but use caution when following an extensive cardio cross-training program. Whether you’re training for an event or if your goal is simply to improve your fitness, the body needs time to rest and repair. This will reduce your risk of overuse injuries — your body’s way of telling you to slow down.
Con: Muscle Loss
When the body is in a caloric-deficit state, it turns to muscle as a fuel source. Without adequate fuel, you risk losing your hard-earned muscle mass. Including cardio in your routine can actually improve your recovery from other forms of exercise, such as lifting weights, by stimulating blood flow to your working muscles.
Con: Fat Retention
If you want to lose weight, you amp up your cardio routine, right? Not always. Your body adapts to the stress you are placing on it. Improvement will require you to overload the muscles and your aerobic system. If cycling or walking or swimming are your go-to exercises, then you are forced to do more and more in order to see continual progress. Increased cardio can lead to decreased muscle mass, resulting in a lower, less efficient metabolic rate. Keep in mind that strength training helps your body maintain metabolically active muscle mass. It is the perfect complement to cardiovascular exercise.
We all aim to achieve that euphoric, post-cardio high that inspires us to finally clean the house or go to the grocery store and stock up on fruit, veggies and everything else that falls into the “healthy” perimeter of the store. However, it’s important to understand the difference between “too much” and “not enough.” It is recommended that you exercise aerobically 30 to 40 minutes per workout, three or four times per week. You can achieve this in increments throughout the day. Aim for an intensity level that’s 55 to 85 percent of your maximal heart rate.
By finding the balance that works for you, based on your goals and current fitness level, you will achieve that sweat-inducing sweet spot while experiencing the benefits of a heart-healthy workout.