It was a simple rule of thumb for decades – if you’re wanting to get bigger, lift weights. If you’re wanting to get smaller (aka. lose weight), do cardio.
It seems to make sense. After all, most diehard runners are pretty darn skinny. It must be because of all the cardio they’re doing, right? And fitness gurus for years touted the benefits of cardio for weight loss (and still do, to some extent).
The reality is, cardio is not necessary for weight loss. In fact, it may not even be the best way to achieve it.
But if you’re celebrating no longer needing to grind out another treadmill run before beach season, hang on. You see, once you understand cardio better, you’ll realize there are still plenty of health benefits.
What is cardio?
The heading seems like a simple question, but most don’t realize “cardio” is short for cardiovascular activity. That is any exercise that gets your heart rate elevated and relies on the body’s ability to use oxygen as fuel for these workouts.
Notice how I didn’t say “calories” as fuel. You see, while that does happen during cardio workouts, as soon as the cardio activity stops, so does any calorie burn, compared to weight training, which burns calories both during AND after the workout.
In terms of cardio exercises, nearly any movement can be considered cardio, be it running, rock climbing, biking, swimming, or even just a walk can be considered an aerobic exercise and thus, cardio.
The actual benefits
Now that you realize cardio is not just for weight loss, let’s look at some true benefits far beyond the calorie burn.
- Improve your heart health: You want bigger muscles, you need to exercise them. Your heart is no different. By elevating your heart rate during a cardio workout, you’re strengthening your heart and helping it pump blood more efficiently. This not only reduces bad cholesterol but also reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, and metabolic syndrome.
- Improve your immune system: Some say exercise is the best medicine. Well, it’s actually true, as cardio increases the production of antibodies, which help your immune system fight off infection.
- Improved sleep and focus: Ever heard of a runner’s high? Well, if you do enough cardio, your body will release endorphins and serotonin that can feel euphoric during the run. But even if you never get that far, that release still happens, which has been shown to relax the mind and improve your focus during the day and sleep at night.
- Improved joint function: Think of your body like a rubber band. At first, it’s very elastic, but if you don’t use that rubber band often or for a while, eventually, it loses that elasticity. Hence, the more cardio movement, the more flexible you’ll stay. Now, it’s important to know not all cardio is created equal. If you have bad knees, pounding the pavement for a few miles is not going to help. But going for a swim? That can do wonders for your mobility, especially as you get older.