I Experimentally Reduced Cardio in My Fitness Mix – Here’s What Happened

There are good reasons for cardio-intensive guys to move to a better mix of endurance/strength/flexibility in the fitness mix.

Overtraining on cardio – especially without super-disciplined rest and nutrition regimes – can wear down your body, contribute to muscle loss, and allow development of imbalances that make you more prone to injury.

Also, in our time-challenged lives, too much cardio usually implies too little strength and flexibility training. And maintaining muscle tone and staying limber are huge parts of looking and feeling our best, and maximizing longevity, as we move through life’s second half.

And one big concern about reducing cardio – gaining weight/fat – may be misplaced. Evidence is emerging that strength training (with at least a somewhat-intense cadence) burns fat as well as, or better than, cardio.

With these things in mind (but still needing to overcome a “cardio reduction paranoia” mental hurdle), here’s what I changed and what I learned.

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There are good reasons for cardio-intensive guys to move to a better mix of endurance, strength and flexibility in their fitness mix.

Over-training on cardio – especially without super-disciplined rest and nutrition regimes – can wear down your body, contribute to muscle loss, and allow development of imbalances that make you more prone to injury.

Also, in our time-challenged lives, too much cardio usually implies too little strength and flexibility training. And maintaining muscle tone and staying limber are huge parts of looking and feeling our best, and maximizing longevity, as we move through life’s second half.

And one big concern about reducing cardio – gaining weight/fat – may be misplaced. Evidence is emerging that strength training (with at least a somewhat-intense cadence) burns fat as well as, or better than, cardio.

With these things in mind (but still needing to overcome a “cardio reduction paranoia” mental hurdle), here’s what I changed and what I learned.

HURDLE: CARDIO REDUCTION PARANOIA

Beyond age 40, it’s vital to balance endurance, strength and flexibility. But most guys, even highly motivated and diligent exercisers, have a natural preference for endurance or strength workouts. And mentally, it’s hard to decide to do less of your natural thing.

In myself, I’ve noticed cardio reduction paranoia at work. A lot of runners, swimmers, cyclists and gym-cardio-machine guys might feel this too. This paranoia fans understandable worries* about what might happen if you reduce frequency or duration of cardio workouts.

  • Will I gain weight / put on body fat? This one is especially strong for the many guys – I’m one of them – that have been 10+ pounds overweight at some point in their life, and conquered that via endurance workouts and smarter nutrition.
  • Will I lose endurance or get slower?
  • Will my underlying cardiovascular health metrics slip (resting pulse, blood pressure)

*There’s “strength training reduction paranoia” syndrome, too. Similar, but with worries focused on getting weak or looking like the “girly-man” from old SNL Hans-and-Franz skits.

MY EXPERIMENT

Until 2012, my routine was cardio five or six days a week (usually including three runs). I’d throw in push-ups and sit-ups – sometimes also dumbbell exercises and pull-ups – at the end of cardio workouts. But by the time I got to this strength work, I was pretty out-of-energy and often just going through the motions.

Doing the P90X at-home program helped me start to break from this “cardio first” mindset. After that, a typical week included four cardio sessions (two runs), a strength workout, and a yoga practice. I continued to do strength add-on’s to cardio days, but got a little more committed to these mini-strength sessions.

Overall, this was a positive move. I didn’t have any problems managing my weight, I got stronger, and the yoga helped a lot with flexibility and stress management.

So if this wasn’t broke, why fix it? Well, this year I’ve seen so much evidence that reasonably-intense strength training burns as much or more fat than cardio. And I’ve become more conscious of preventing a decline in muscle strength (turning 50 was at a catalyst here). So I decided to experiment with another step toward a balanced mix.

For the last six weeks, I’ve followed this routine:

  • Three cardio sessions. A run, a swim, and a bike.
  • Two strength workouts. Full-body routines at a fairly high cadence for about 60 minutes. Old-school stuff, at home: a combo of bodyweight exercises with use of dumbbells and a kettle bell.
  • One yoga practice for 60-75 minutes
  • A day off
  • Most days I also walk 2 miles with my dog
  • No changes to my normal eating routines

WHAT I’VE LEARNED

This wasn’t radical, since my 2012 shift already balanced things considerably. But still, to someone with cardio reduction paranoia…reducing to only three cardio workouts per week brought back the same old worries and doubts.

So what’s happened?

  • Cardio performance has NOT suffered. Runs and swims show the same pace. Granted, if I went from intense training in one cardio discipline (e.g. half marathon training) and suddenly went to three cardio sessions per week with only one of each type…I’d have seen some drop-off. But this isn’t my situation.
  • My resting heart rate is unchanged (another way of confirming the “no cardio performance loss” conclusion)
  • I’m getting stronger, especially on pull-ups and kettle bell exercises I wasn’t doing much before this experiment. I’ve improved muscle definition and tone.
  • I gained a couple of pounds, but I’m still within the 3-4 pound weight range I’ve been in for the last 13 years. My clothes fit the same, so if there’s been any change it’s been to firm up some muscle.
  • But I have to admit, I struggle with motivation a little on the strength days, more than I do for cardio. I’ve still done what I planned to do, but it hasn’t been as easy to get started those days.

To draw full conclusions, I’ll follow this for six more weeks and then consider what a three-month experiment suggests. But as of now, I’m concluding:

  • This is a good mix – I’ll probably settle into this over the fall and winter, at least
  • At some point, I need to deal with motivation challenge for the at-home strength workouts. I’ll likely do a strength-oriented group class once a week, and just one at-home strength session.
  • I wish I could practice yoga twice a week, but I don’t want to give up a true day-off to achieve that. I need that day off — I can feel my body calling for as I get into days five and six of this routine. Using a short “yoga mini-practice” of 15 minutes or so, added onto one of the cardio sessions, might work.

IMPLICATIONS FOR YOU

If you’re cardio-centric, you’d benefit from shifting your mix to include more strength and flexibility. I know it’s a bummer to move away even partially from what seems like it’s working. But if “fitness” for you has equated primarily to a single cardio activity – or even just the cardio family of exercises – the benefits to more balance are substantial, dude.

Strength-centric guys, these same “why” arguments apply to you. If you do reduce strength workouts per week, you might need to change their composition. E.g. you can’t have a single day be “chest” and another one be “back”, etc., if you’re only getting 2-3 strength sessions per week. Going to full-body workouts enables you to reduce # of days but stay all-over strong.

And if you’re a guy just ramping up a fitness routine now, then you have the opportunity to build it from the get-go as one that is well-rounded!

And in all three cases, the other conclusion from this is a simple but powerful one. You can keep physical fitness fresh and motivating by continuing to experiment, changing things up every now and then, and folding new stuff into your mix. Never stop doing that!

 

“Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep.” (Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth – click to listen. FYI in case you didn’t know: Buffalo Springfield was Neil Young and Stephen Stills)

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