The Great Cardio Debate – Part 1: Is Cardio Really King??

Coach Alison at a race

A few weeks ago, in my blog post titled Can You Tell Me How to Get to Awesome Street?, I provided a basic framework with four essential elements necessary to build a solid, well-rounded fitness program. Essential Component #1 is cardio and unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock since the mid-80s, you probably already know that benefits of doing cardio and, yes, there are some super-awesome benefits:

  • Stronger breathing muscles means air comes in and out of your lungs better
  • Stronger heart muscle means blood is easier (and less stressful for your heart) to circulate blood through your entire body (AKA lower blood pressure)
  • Increase in red blood cells means more oxygen is transported to all the places it’s needed
  • High-impact activities can stimulate bone growth reducing the rick for osteoarthritis
  • Improved body functions lead to a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes
  • Significant stress reduction and increased cognitive capacity (attention, memory, problem-solving, and comprehension)
  • Improved ability to store energy in the muscles leading to increased endurance
  • Enhanced muscle recovery following hard efforts

It kind of sells itself, doesn’t it? Trainers typically don’t have much trouble getting people on board for cardio but- in the spirit of full disclosure- for all its awesome benefits, cardio is not the end-all-be-all and unfortunately, so many of us get stuck in a cardio-only pattern (but more on that in a later post when we discuss strength training). It’s important to remember that cardio also has its limitations and downfalls such as:

  • Cardio is not an effective approach to building muscle or increasing strength
  • The risk of injury from overuse is far more prevalent in cardio-junkies due to the high impact and repetitive movements used
  • Cardio is not the most effective way to burn fat of help you “lose the squish”

Additionally, if you read my prior post, you’ll remember that I also warned you to beware because not all cardio is created equal. Allow me to elaborate…essentially, there are two main types of cardiovascular exercise: (1) interval training (also known as metabolic conditioning or high intensity interval training); and (2) steady state cardio (like running, cycling, and swimming at a consistent pace).

Now there’s a ton of chatter in the fitness industry about which type is superior. Lately it seems that the majority of researchers and fitness professionals are singing the praises of super fast, super intense interval training (HIIT); however, the general opinion in the industry shifts back and forth between the two with some regularity. So what’s the average Joe or Jane to do when the experts can’t decide?? The reality is that both types are effective in their own ways and both have limitations and drawbacks, which is why I feel so strongly that most people should be doing a bit of both. How much of both, however, depends on your own individual goals.

First, let’s explore the similarities. HIIT and steady state cardio are both safe and effective methods for reducing blood pressure, improving metabolism, and developing an awesome cardiovascular system. They are both extremely convenient (very little equipment or coaching needed and they can be done virtually anywhere) and versatile (very easy to change it up or switch to a different activity based on what you feel like doing).

It isn’t until you start to specialize in one type of cardio that the differences between the two begin to become obvious. In the next few posts, I’ll cut through all the science and fitness jardon and give you a breakdown of pros and cons for each type of cardio so that you can determine for yourself how to effectively use both types of cardio to achieve your own personal goals.