December 2014

There is More to Exercise Than Just Cardio!

As an exercise professional in the fitness industry for almost 30 years, I have seen a lot of fads, trends, and crazes regarding classes, programs, and equipment.  From high-impact to low-impact to step to spin; the constant focus on “cardio” has been and still is a very important component in the movement plan of many people. What’s easier than throwing on a pair of sneakers and going for a jog or a brisk walk?  The gratification of cardio exercise is almost instant as you work your heart and lungs, challenge your breathing, endurance, break a sweat, and build detoxifying heat. Plus, the activity helps you to reduce your stress and relax.

If you are one who craves a group class rather than the lonely road there are the ever-popular spin classes where you ride a bike with a small group of other determined spinners to see who can go the fastest, ride the hardest, breathe the heaviest, sweat the most, and do it in a club-type setting with great music and atmosphere. Plus, even the most uncoordinated, tight-hamstring, slightly soft male can get on a bike and compete. The ladies are happy because now they can get their guys to accompany them to an event both social and physical: A spin class.

As a teacher who has worked with thousands of students who are on a mission to change their bodies and lives, I can honestly tell you that there is more to fitness than cardio workouts.

Almost like the media scares us into thinking we need flu shots, the public is also greatly misinformed when it comes to types and styles of exercise.

Is there any real need to work our heart muscles to an extreme over a 45-minute period?  Does the heart muscle get stronger with such challenge? What are the systemic benefits of regular heart-muscle and cardio challenges like this? Am I healthier? Leaner? More fit? More flexible? Will I have a better chance of living longer because I do regular cardio exercise?

In most cases, the answer to all of these questions is either no, or not necessarily so.

Let’s take a look at what cardio exercise means:

Cardio is short for cardiovascular, which refers to the heart. Cardiovascular exercise, or “aerobics” as it was referred to in the ‘70s, is exercise that raises your heart rate and keeps it elevated for a period of time. The kinds of exercises that are associated with cardiovascular workouts are things like jogging, fast walking, spinning, and swimming, where there is no break in the routine. Exercises that emphasize stretch and strength, like pilates or yoga, are generally not considered cardio exercises, although both of these exercise systems can be performed with a “cardio effect” with the right pace and flow, and can certainly be combined with cardio workouts to great effect. There are more and more hybrid-style classes these days. At Exhale we teach our award-winning Core Fusion Cardio and Core Fusion Boot Camp classes, which combine cardio-type pace and flow with light weights and strengthening moves.

The benefits of cardio workouts

There is a hefty list of health benefits associated with doing cardio exercise. Here are some top reasons to include cardio in your workout routine:

  • It strengthens the heart
  • It strengthens the lungs and increases lung capacity
  • It boosts the metabolism for the hour and helps you burns calories and lose weight
  • It helps reduce stress
  • It increases energy
  • It promotes restful sleep

A true cardio workout is when you are working at around 60 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate for a minimum of 20 minutes. Simply stated, you should be able to talk while you are working out.  If you are too winded to speak comfortably, your heart rate is probably too high and you need to slow down. The fat-burning cycle needs a very specific heart-rate zone, otherwise you won’t burn fat calories and will switch to an anaerobic energy cycle, which is more intramuscular energy supply and results in a different effect.

For the average American, walking is the exercise of choice, and if the walk is brisk and purposeful over time, a person can get the required cardio benefits needed to maximize his or her health. The need to push to extremes with intense cardio does not necessarily give you proportionately greater cardiovascular results in the end.  It is the spirit of fun and competition that drives the hard-core runner, spinner, cardio junkie. They love the cardio high from exploring and challenging their limits, but in the end, their net results are no greater than the purposeful power walker who is choosing an activity that is much less stressful on the joints than running or jogging. Eventually, the knee, hip, and ankle joints of the runner could suffer from the pounding effect of the activity. Other forms of cardio exercise, like swimming, begin to make more sense.

What’s important to remember when choosing a movement plan is that the single most important component in fitness to maximize results and create life-enhancing changes is strength training.  With a resistance-training program, such as weight lifting, pilates, some forms of yoga, our Core Fusion® classes at Exhale, and other techniques, a person has the potential to increase lean muscle mass. As one ages, the three deficits that grow annually are muscle density, bone density, and muscle elasticity, which reduce our range of motion.

A program that incorporates resistance training will increase muscle density, lean muscle mass, and, most importantly, it will raise your resting metabolic rate, or RMR. This is the rate at which you burn calories round the clock, 24/7, not just the one hour that you are on the bike or going for a run.

By having a body with a high percentage of lean muscle mass, all of your other exercise choices including cardio will be more effective and safer. Muscles support joints, so if muscles are stronger, the joints have more integrity. By incorporating flexibility exercises into your strengthening work, you are promoting suppleness in the body, which is especially important for the muscles that line the spine. As Joseph Pilates once said, “A supple spine is a youthful body,” and in the end, isn’t that why we exercise, to stay youthful, energetic, and vibrant?

You would be wise to make exercise choices that will enhance your lifestyle and make these exercises a part of your lifestyle. Do the exercises that you need to do that will pay off a year from now and should be looked at as an investment. I am talking about the exercises that you know that you need, not necessarily the exercises that you look good doing.

I have trouble getting the competitive male to sometimes take Core Fusion® classes simply because he cannot get into the positions. Hamstrings are too tight, stomach a little too soft, back too tight, but the biggest problem is usually the ego being too big. If there is a will, and humility, a person can start building a physical foundation that simply improves over time. There is not much instant gratification sometimes, but with patience, perseverance, and consistency, it is possible to be in better shape in your 50s than you were in your 20s.

Lifestyle exercise that reduces stress, shapes your muscles, and builds strength and flexibility, all while simultaneously giving you the needed cardio benefits, will go a long way in enhancing your life.

Fred DeVito, Health & Fitness Contributing Editor
For over 30 years, Fred DeVito has taught New Yorkers to live healthier, leading fitness classes at the acclaimed Lotte Berk Method Studios, and more recently, at Exhale Spa, where he serves as Executive Vice President of Mind Body Training. With his wife and partner, Elisabeth Halfpapp . . . Read more about Fred DeVito