The Cardio Myth

Confession time: For most of my life, I thought of exercise merely as a way to punish my body for being gross, warp it into thinness, and burn, burn, burn every calorie I'd ever eaten. When I was being "good," that meant hours on the elliptical (or whatever machine was on-trend and not that hard), combined with obsessive step counting. Even when I was in a yoga phase, I'd find myself whipping faster and faster through vinyasas, looking like a hamster on a wheel. Because, you know, strength and flexibility are nice and all, but cardio — that's what really matters, right?

My relationship with fitness has evolved tremendously in the past two years. It's taken constant effort to retrain my brain to recognize exercise as a means of achieving physical and mental health, and while it's not always easy (what with the rest of the world still shrieking about thigh gaps), this attitude has helped me maintain a consistent level of exercise for the first time in my life. So, take that, thigh gaps.

But old habits die hard, especially when they're mental habits. And recently, I realized that I had one old habit still haunting me through every workout: cardio mania.

Even those of us who only have a "magazine level" of education in fitness know that you're supposed to have a balanced exercise routine that includes cardio, strength training, and stretching. But most of us — especially women — still operate under the idea that reeeeaaallly we just need some good, sweaty cardio. Certainly, I thought this. And even when my fitness goals shifted from weight loss to overall health, I still treated cardio like the meat of the meal. Everything else was gravy; I could do without it. Without cardio, I might as well not eat at all.

It wasn't until I started consistently trying other forms of exercise in addition to my gym time that I realized how much my body had been missing. Only when I developed a truly balanced routine did everything get better: My posture changed, my body composition felt different, and I was flying up the four flights to my apartment with ease. Before, I thought if I just worked my heart muscle enough, that would make the stairs easier. But no — it turned out I had to develop my thighs, calves, and glute muscles, too. Forgive me, but: duh.

Once the cardio spell broke for me, I finally began to hear what fitness professionals had been saying for years: We are all hyper-focused on cardio, and it's doing us no good. I sat down with Cadence Dubus, owner of fitness studio Brooklyn Strength, who is constantly trying to combat the cardio fixation in her own clients and get them to that "duh" moment. How did cardio become such a dominant trend? Why are we so hooked on it? What are we getting wrong here, and how can we get it right? Here are some myths, facts, and surprising truths we all need to learn about cardio.


The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject(hashtag your own Ant-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at kelsey.miller@refinery29.com. If you just want to say hi, that's cool, too.
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1. The Weight-Loss Myth
Probably the primary reason for cardio's popularity is that, more so than any other form of exercise, it's associated with weight loss. While this idea is not exactly a myth, it's not exactly true either.

If you're just starting a fitness routine and your body has excess weight to lose, you almost certainly will lose a few pounds when initially starting cardio. But, "the more you do it, the more efficient your body becomes," says Dubus. Whether it's biking, jumping rope, or jogging, "your body gets better and better at it. Your wind gets better, your muscles get stronger, and the whole neurological system will kick in faster."

None of this is bad news! If you're starting a running routine in order to become a marathoner, consistent, long-form cardio is key. As your body gets better at running, it's going to burn fewer calories each time you run, says Dubus. This is really important when you're running a marathon. But if you're going into this with the idea that weight will just continuously melt away, you're going to be disappointed. "If you look at the New York Marathon, the majority of the people jogging by are chubby," adds Dubus. "And most of them have probably been logging 12, 15, or 20 miles a week."
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2. Aerobics = The Patriarchy
Just kidding! But not really! I'm sure there are entire PhD theses on the history of women and fitness, but the general thrust is — can you guess? Misogyny. Historically, dancing was the only socially acceptable form of exercise for women. As Dubus points out, "It took forever for women to even be able to ride a horse or a bike with your legs split. That was too racy." Like so many entrenched ideas about female bodies and behavior, it all comes back to being modest, small, and certainly not strong or competitive. See this 1912 Harper's Bazaar headline: "Can Sports Make You Sterile?" (I'll save you a click: Nope.)

Cut to 60 years later, and we see the rise of aerobics, a class style designed to burn the most calories in the least amount of time. The entire aesthetics of the aerobics trend underscores its roots in gender stereotypes: bright pastels, high ponytails, and shiny leotards belted at the waist. Dubus adds: "I totally love aerobics class and step class — and you definitely can get strong doing a step class." But the marketing and cultural perception of that whole fitness genre is that cardio is fat-burning and women work out to burn fat, period. "If you read women's fitness magazines, they never use the word 'strong' or 'muscular' — God forbid. They always say 'toned' or 'lean.' Like we're all going to use our little, two-pound pink weights and tone our arms!"

Which leads to the next rude awakening.
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3. The Truth About Tone
Here's another good "duh" moment: If you want toned muscles, you have to have muscles.

Cardio works the heart, which I think we can all agree is a very important muscle. But if you're hoping to create muscle tone and definition, you absolutely have to incorporate strengthening exercises of some kind. It's just not going to happen with cardio alone. People who just do long-form cardio typically end up, "sort of smushy and slightly smaller," says Cadence. "You have to have muscles for them to show."

Of course, lower body fat is part of creating that "toned" look. That's going to be easier for certain people (and certain body parts) than others, depending on how your body is built. And if you are exercising with body fat in mind, remember that "building muscle is where you burn calories," says Dubus. And, as any CrossFit fan will tell you, leaning on cardio means muscle loss. But even if there's zero fat to speak of (reality check: There will always be some fat to speak of), you can't run your way to chiseled arms.

Furthermore…
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4. You Can't Run Your Way To A New Body Type
This is a good point to remember with all exercise, but with cardio in particular. It gets you hot and sweaty and maybe even sore, but the fact is that "cardio tends to just make you look the same, but maybe slightly smaller," says Dubus.

With a consistent, dynamic routine, you can create a more defined and agile body, but it's always going to be a variation on a theme. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. If you're a professional athlete with specific physical requirements, for example, you may work your way to a very different-looking body. "But that's a crazy commitment," says Dubus. If you're doing it right, it means working out and eating in a very specific way, every single day (not to mention medical vigilance, physical therapy, and a certain amount of sacrifice in your social life). "If that's your goal and your life, cool. Go for it." But for most of us, exercise is something that supports our lives — not dominates them.

"I don't think people understand that we all have our base body," says Dubus, noting that even with proper exercise and diet, we typically shift between 10 and 15 pounds of that base body weight, because, well, that's life. For most of us, she says, fitness comes down to, "creating a body that's in balance." That means eating well, exercising consistently, getting good sleep, and managing stress. Those goals are lofty enough. If we can accomplish these, "most people will be in their good spot. But most people also have a muffin top," Dubus adds.
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5. Cardio Is Not A Cure-All
Just as excessive cardio won't make you tiny and ripped, it won't cure all the stress and unhappiness in your life, either. Sorry, did you think that? Because I kind of did.

Along with its "fat-melting" rep, cardio is thought of as an almost magical mood booster, stress-buster, and antidepressant. Certainly, anyone who's ever felt a runner's high knows that it is very real. Cardio can be a great boon to your mental health, but — surprise, surprise — so is other exercise. Numerous studies indicate the very real mental health benefits of things like resistance training, yoga, and Tai Chi. Cardio comes with its own specific benefits, but incorporating any and all kinds of exercise in a consistent, healthy way has a positive impact.

However, it's worth noting that, just as overexertion in any way can hurt you, too much cardio may have a detrimental impact on your stress levels — both mental and physical. "Anytime you're exercising over about 45 minutes, you start to release more cortisol," says Dubus. Cortisol is a stress response hormone that gets a lot of press because of its connection to weight, blood sugar, anxiety, inflammation, and all those other things you don't usually want more of. While moderate exercise has an overall beneficial impact on hormonal regulation, pushing yourself too far on a regular basis can have the opposite effect.

"That's why I always worry about people who do boot camp-style classes every single day," says Dubus. "That's just huge inflammation and stress on your body."
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6. Cardio Is Good For You (Obviously)
Look, no one's saying that cardio is a bad thing. It's a great thing. Not only does it have obvious benefits for your heart health, but, adds Dubus, "cardio is helpful for a whole variety of reasons, from balancing your hormones to cleaning your lungs out to keeping your colon healthy."

"People should be moving and raising their heart rate every day," she adds. The American Heart Association agrees, recommending 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity) per week. But ideally, we should be doing that in different ways and at different intensities. A long, hard run can feel great for your mind and body, and if that's your jam, then go for it. Just make sure you're giving equal attention to developing your muscle strength, your agility, and your flexibility. Dubus adds that, depending on how often you work out, you should also be making time for something restorative, "like Pilates or yoga, a long hike, or maybe a swim if you live in a place where you can do that. Just something that loosens you up and puts you back together and makes you feel good."

Sometimes it's hard to remember this when you're working out, but one way or another: Feeling good is the point.
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