Un-inventing The Wheel: Removing Cardio to Improve Cardiovascular Health

There are certain foundational beliefs that seem to be interwoven with modern health and fitness. Even people who don’t know a dumbbell from a kettlebell seem to know these principles. It’s as if they have been etched in the collective psyche of the masses,

“We hold these gym truths to be self evident! That not all exercises are created equal.”

Chief among these conceptions is the idea that in order to improve cardiovascular fitness, one must, without exception, work on and improve their “cardio”. But what does this even mean? What is cardio, and why is slaving away for hours on a treadmill, running 10k’s and trekking for endless cycles to nowhere on an elliptical the only way to improve it?

If you take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in bed and keep thinking that the only way to improve endurance is to slave away endlessly on bikes, treadmills, and ellipticals. But, if you take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

For most layman’s and even among many in the self proclaimed gym elite, “cardio” is a foundational gym term, a building block upon which a true fitness enthusiast builds their home. This is why if you go to any gym in America right now you will most likely see two diametrically opposed specimens participating in the same ritualistic pilgrimage to nowhere. Why is it that bodybuilders and distance runners practice the same way? Why is one trying to gain mass and the other is trying to stay lean, yet they both meet at this fork in the road in their training and take the path most traveled?

Let’s look at the root of the word Cardio, Cardi, meaning “pertaining to the heart”. So at the root of this idea of Cardiovascular exercise is our heart, but what is the heart, and how are jogging, cycling, and ellipticals meant to improve our hearts?

The heart, like many other misunderstood parts of the body, is a muscle. At its most basic, that’s it, a muscle not unlike the biceps, quads, glutes, simply a muscle. Where the heart differs from other muscles however, is how it functions and what its main function is for our bodies. The heart is responsible for pumping blood, and life giving oxygen to the rest of the body. But just like all other muscles in the body, it can only improve upon its functionality through proper, safe, and consistent exercise.

Where is all started to go wrong is with the introduction of a new word into the fitness nomenclature, something known as “Aerobics”. The term Aerobics was first coined by Dr. Kenneth Cooper in the 1960’s and has since become wrongly synonymous with another word, Cardio. Dr. Cooper hypothesized and later advocated this idea of Aerobic conditioning to the masses and “Aerobics” as it would later be popularly known was born. Over the decades however, this misguided idea of Aerobics has become fused with the idea of “Cardio” and now the two are almost indistinguishable in how they are interchanged in language.

While it would be ill advised to argue that Aerobics under the guise of Cardio is inherently bad for one’s health, it would be worse to consider Cardio as it is now defined “exercise”, it simply is not. It is a recreational activity, and one who’s pros and cons are beyond the scope of this piece. But, simply put, if improving your cardiovascular system is one of your goals through exercise, you would be best served to stay away from anything under the guise of “Aerobics”.

The simplest analogy for understanding the flawed logic of Cardio as we know it, may be as follows. Imagine that you have a goal to perform 100 10-lb dumbbell curls without stopping. Let’s say when you first start you can only perform 20 of these curls without stopping. In order to increase your capacity for handling 10-lb curls which would make more sense? Should you continue to only curl 10-lb weights and hope for a slow steady improvement, adding a rep or two per training session? Or should you start with 20-lb dumbbells, and progress slowly and steadily to 20 reps with 40-lb dumbbells? The answer, without question is the second scenario. By increasing your overall strength with the 40-lb dumbbells with steady strength gains, when you are ready to try out 100 reps at 10-lbs, the weights will feel easy. This same logic can be applied to cardiovascular health, because the heart after all, is a muscle.

You see where Cardio under the influence of Aerobics goes awry is in the assumption that the heart can be isolated, this is not the case. If you want to improve the functionality of the heart, you have to improve the other muscles of the body. When our muscles become bigger and stronger they require more blood and more oxygen. In order to increase capacity to the demands of the muscles’ needs the heart must also become stronger and more efficient. This is why HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is the gold standard when it comes to improving overall cardiovascular health. Just like our muscles respond, and grow to increased stimulus following the inverse relationship of Time/Intensity, so does our hearts’ capacity to pump blood and oxygen.

Well this may seem counterintuitive at first you can see the results and ramifications through sport and almost all athletic competition. Most elite long distance runners will prep for a race by working in “sprints” into their training. If you run 20 miles every day you body will wear down and be destroyed by the time competition arises. If however, you steadily increase your training to running 1,2, 4,8, etc. miles as fast as you possibly can, when the time comes to “pace” yourself, your body, and more specifically your heart are more prepared to handle this less intense exercise for longer periods.

The point is this. If increasing your “Aerobic capacity” (i.e. cardiovascular endurance) is your goal, you will be better served by 20 minutes of high intensity exercise, then continuing on the slow, steady, treadmill road to nowhere. If you enjoy cardio, and it is part of your routine, then by all means, continue to do it. However, if you think the only way to improve your cardiovascular endurance is through endless hours of spinning, ellipticals, and treadmills, rejoice, you now have a reason to get off the hamster wheel.

Your Pal in Fitness,

Logan Emmett Herlihy

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