Making the case for cardio workouts

cardio workouts

Wondering if cardio workouts are really for you?

At Omega Health and Performance we are regularly asked about whether cardio workouts are a waste of time, especially as we tend to focus on strength and movement training. As with all elements of fitness, fads and trends come and go, but a regular, well-balanced program of cardio in your fitness routine could help to improve your performance.

How cardio got such a bad name

Over the last decade or so the use of steady-state cardiovascular training has taken a bit of a beating within the fitness industry with many coaches preferring to use sprints and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) instead. Often it was cited that they were doing this because steady-state cardiovascular training was “bad for you”. The 3 particular assertions thrown at it was that it would;

  • make you weaker
  • it would make you fatter
  • it could even make you ill

Add this to the fact that steady-state cardio can take at least 10 times as long as some HITT sessions (Tabata sessions, when done to the original prescription, take just 4 minutes) and it is easy to see why there was this shift away from cardio and towards HIIT and sprints which appeared to give the same or greater benefit of old-style cardiovascular training.

Many of the claims made about cardio were centred around the relationship with a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol belongs to a group of hormones known to be catabolic, that is, they break down complex molecules into more simple ones. In large amounts and if present for long periods of time, cortisol has the effects of breaking down muscles tissue making you weaker and less muscular. Lack of muscle also means that you may have a higher percentage of body fat than you would expect to see in someone of a particular body size. It also suppresses your immune system and can break down bone mineral density, pretty scary stuff.

What does cortisol do for your body?

However, while doing steady state cardio does increase cortisol levels it does this as part of the bodies way of creating glucose from other molecules to make sure that there is enough glucose to power the muscles over a longer period of exercise. I’m going to separate this out so you don’t miss it:

It would take very regular and very long periods of steady state cardio to raise cortisol levels to a point where we would consider them to be able to have a negative influence on our bodies.

How often or how long would you need to go for cortisol to have a negative effect? These effects are almost only ever seen in ultra-long distance events and in people who run for example 100+ miles per week, not in people who do 2 or 3 30 – 45 minute runs or cycles for example per week.

So it is super unlikely that people who do moderate amounts of steady state cardio will experience any of the negative side effects of cortisol, but they will find benefits that no other form of exercise can deliver.

What are these benefits of cardio workouts?

Firstly, steady state cardio has unique benefits for the heart and cardiovascular system. It improves the blood flow to the heart, making sure the most important muscle in the body stays healthy for longer. It also increases the number and width of capillaries to the muscles and other organs meaning that these gain an improved supply of oxygen and nutrients.

Moderate levels of steady state cardio also have the effect of lowering blood pressure, reducing stress and increasing the amount blood pumped by the heart during each beat lowering resting heart rate.

Secondly steady state cardio has a profound effect on mitochondrial density and health within the cells. Mitochondria are the ‘powerhouse’ of the cell and its where we make our energy through a process called ATP phosphorylation via the electron transport chain (ETC). Steady state cardio more than any type of exercise affects the number of mitochondria in the cells helps to maintain the ETC and high levels of ATP production.

Mitochondrial density and health have a number of benefits for us. It means that we have abundant energy both during exercise and in everyday life. It also means that we are able to clear out metabolites and recover from more intensive exercise more quickly, and we have an improved (younger) mitochondrial age, which has a direct relationship to overall health and the aging process.

The third major benefit is the improved ability of our bodies to mobilise fatty acids which makes us better at burning fat and improves body composition.

Should you be including cardio workouts in your fitness routine?

Despite cardio having a bad press in recent years, there is a definite benefit for including this type of exercise within any exercise programme. At Omega, we focus on building an aerobic base using this type of exercise early in our programmes. This allows us to maximise the benefits and prepare our clients to perform more intense modes of exercise.

Interested in learning more about how we can help you to make the most of your workouts? Contact us today.