Cardiovascular Exercise: Friend Or Foe?

I was an active female my entire life.  If I wasn’t jumping and playing and running outside, I was creating and imagining and pretending.  Always on the go.  Always on the move. It was inevitable that I would join sports in highschool and then dive into the world of fitness and become a regular at my local gym. As I embraced my life’s passions, I also learned that I was destined to work in health and wellness and inspire others to become active and move their body.  I wanted others to FEEL what I feel when I am active.  So, I began to study and learn and experiment on myself as to how food and exercise impacted me and the others around me.  I began to watch others and observe how their sport or area of fitness impacted them.  I started to realize some patterns forming.  Not only does your ultimate goal navigate you into where you should focus your efforts while in the gym, but, holy moly, so many people are so lost and really unsure of  1. what their ultimate goals are and 2. where they should even began! With all the conflicting advice and information floating around in our overloaded and easily accessible whirlwind of internet knowledge, no wonder people are confused.  If you are not training for a specific event or sport, you probably just want to “be healthy.”  Now that could mean many things to many people, but, what I have noticed is that for the vast majority of our society, it means losing weight, staying strong, increasing energy, and being healthy on the inside.  And, to break it down even further, many people have a hierarchy of importance on these four goals. Unfortunately, and typically, the goal that floats to the top is losing weight and you see this most prevalent in the females of our society. Now don’t get me wrong, we all want to look good and feel fit in our own skin, but I have noticed a trend that some people are totally fine with losing those stubborn pounds at any cost…that cost being lack of energy by exhausting their adrenal glands or eating franken-foods deemed and packaged as healthy when in reality they are filled with disease-producing chemicals and hormone disrupters (making it even more difficult to lose weight!). To break this down even further, I have noticed that the most common mistake that these people make to lose the weight to get to their ultimate goal is…now, listen up…too much cardiovascular exercise!  I think I just heard the needle on the record skip…

So, here is the deal…If you are training for a specific event or a marathon or an Ironman, I say, go for it!  That’s right, I am currently training for my first 1/2 marathon. Does the following advice still apply to you and me?  Absolutely!  But, remember it is your goal that should set the stage for your training.  I am targeting this blog towards my general population and for all those endurance training folks when they are not training for their specific event.

How does long bouts of cardio increase stress and inflammation within the body?

Cardiovascular exercise and the hormone cortisol have a direct connection. The more we stress our bodies (mentally, physically, emotionally, environmentally, etc), the more our cortisol levels increase and make the belly fat more stubbornly resistant to being shed.  Cardio in excess of two to three hours a week can lead to problems because of increased production of cortisol, especially if you are not taking care of your stress in other areas of your life and if you are not getting enough sleep and recovery time (Remember folks, we build lean muscle and improve our overall health during rest and recovery). These problems include decreased fat metabolism and a weakened immune system. Moderate levels of cardio have been shown to decrease levels of stress, but too intense and too often bouts of cardio increase levels of stress. It is as simple as that! As the stress in the body increases, so does inflammation.  It is the natural response of the body’s healing process.  When stress plagues an area of the body, inflammation and fluid will build up, giving you that “squooshie” feeling and appearance.  This becomes more of a concern and a physical problem when the inflammation and fluid accumulation is in the joints, such as the ankles, knees, hips, and back. As that begins, many begin to note pain and discomfort in those joints because of the extra pressure from the fluid pressing around the joint and creating less free mobility with any movement, especially activities like  jumping, squatting, lunging, running, etc.  A great example of this is Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome, or Runner’s Knee. Long, intense bouts of cardio = increased inflammation = increased likeliness for pain = increased likeliness for injury and/or decreased tolerance to activity.

How does it affect your heart health?

There have been studies on how continual and intense endurance training affects the heart.  There has been evidence that scarring on the heart and heart damage can occur, especially in the right ventricle of the heart (the one that is responsible for pumping blood to the lungs), with prolonged intense activity day in and day out. There is still much study out there investigating the exact correlation between endurance cardio and heart health, but it is something good to be aware of.  Here is an interesting article from Mercola.com on cardiovascular exercise and heart health.

What are some signs that you are overtraining?

It is quite important that we all take a look at our activity from time to time to make sure that we are not working too hard and overtraining, setting ourselves up for more issues than just being fatigued and poor sports performance. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), some signs that you may be over stressing the body are:

1. Decreased performance. Slower reaction times, reduced speeds and lowered endurance levels are all common signs of overtraining.
2. Agitation, moodiness, irritability or lack of concentration. Too much exercise and too little rest can wreak havoc on the hormones and cause mood swings and an inability to concentrate.
3. Excessive fatigue and malaise. A body that never has a chance to fully recover from a previous workout will continue to feel more and more fatigued. Some people describe this feeling as “heavy legs.”
4. Increased perceived effort during normal workouts. Overtraining takes a toll on the body, and workouts that were once a breeze can begin to feel like a grind.
5. Chronic or nagging muscle aches or joint pain. Overused muscles and joints can cause constant aches, which may go unnoticed until the body is given proper rest.
6. More frequent illnesses and upper-respiratory infections. Too much exercise taxes all of the body’s systems and makes it more difficult to ward off infections.
7. Insomnia or restless sleep. During sleep the body has time to rest and repair itself. An overtrained body, however, is sometimes unable to slow down and completely relax, making it difficult to recover between workouts.
8. Loss of appetite. Overtraining can cause an increase in hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine that tend to inhibit appetite. The physical exhaustion and anxiety that often comes with overtraining can also have the same effect.
9. Chronically elevated heart rate at rest and during exercise. A clear sign of an overworked heart muscle is a chronically elevated heart rate. Also, people who overtrain will often find that it takes longer for their heart rate to return to normal after a workout.
10. Menstrual cycle disturbances in women. Exercising excessively and not consuming enough calories may disrupt a woman’s menstrual cycle. While some may experience irregular periods, others will stop menstruating altogether.

Give me the skinny on an effective interval workout!

Not only does continual endurance cardio strain the heart, but it also affects how you build lean muscle and keep it. Performing  cardio too frequently, too intensely, or for too long can certainly prevent you from gaining muscle from your strength training workouts. It is easy to perform both, but when you are dipping from both energy reserve pools and do not have an eye on your goal, one or both activities will suffer.  If you are doing long bouts of intense cardio, you will not have enough energy and reserves stored up inside you to be able to adequately strength train to build muscle. As a result, muscle loss will be occur.

An optimal way to train cardiovascular health is to perform high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and/or plyometric exercises (i.e., box jumps, jumping jacks, bounding, skipping, etc) 1-2 sessions per week. Not only does it help to preserve your muscle mass while still strength training and building lean muscle, but it also mimics real life activities by having high levels of more aggressive activity followed by rest periods. This is especially effective for heart health and increasing the strength of your heart in general. Remember that while HIIT training is very effective for fat loss, preserving lean muscle, strengthening the heart, and increasing endurance, you want to make sure that you do not perform this every cardio session and your HIIT trainings should only be about 20-30 minutes in length. What exactly is HIIT training? Check out my HIIT sample program to get you started!

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the average adult requires 150 minutes a week of cardio. This can be accomplished with five sessions of moderate activity for 30 to 60 minutes a week, or three sessions of vigorous activity for 20 to 60 minutes a week. Ensure that your heart rate is between 50 and 80 percent of your maximum heart rate to get the full benefits of cardio exercise.

Listen up ya’all…

Regardless if you choose to perform short bursts of cardio or longer bouts to train for a sport or an event, don’t forget about the food that you put into your mouth! Your food supports your activity and it supports how your body responds to the cardio exercise. Eat foods that are anti-inflammatory, gentle, and high energy producing to push you throughout your workouts and to keep your physical body stress and inflammation low.  Foods such as raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, coconut, fermented foods, organic and antibiotic free eggs and meats, dates, coconut oil, avocados, etc will keep your body humming for longer.  Think of it this way, like a car, if you fill the tank with a cheap fuel to get you where you need to go, your car will only be able to travel the distances by exerting extra force and energy because the system is being stressed by that cheap fuel.  Fill your own tank right! My absolute favorite pre-cardio snack (especially for my more intense workouts) is a date with a teaspoon or two of unrefined coconut oil.  The quick sugar of the date will give you a burst of energy and the coconut oil will also give you energy but help your body to sustain it longer.

ACTION STEP:  

Take action now! How can you change your cardiovascular training style?  What is your goal? Are you training for an endurance competition?  If so, how can you decrease the stress placed on your body in other areas of your life so that you can push towards your event goals more effectively?

Comment below and tell me what your workout looks like now and how you plan on changing it.  Have you already made changes?  If so, I want to hear all about what you did and why you did it! Live life with passion and purpose…

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One thought on “Cardiovascular Exercise: Friend Or Foe?

  1. Excellent base line on how to adjust cardio training and defeat the myth that I havd to run an hour a day to lose weight when I could be doing and adding more stress which increases my cortisol levels. Never knew that. As always great writing and insight. If u want to change your insights and training for a better u the articles here always help with that. Thank u. And u used ya all are u southern by chance?

    Like

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