Why Too Much Cardio Is Bad For You (And What To Do Instead)

I remember how exhilarated I used to feel after an hours-long run (yes, I said hours). The sheer exhaustion, the sore legs, the achy joints ... I thought, "this means I'm doing something good for my body." But in my sweat-drenched bliss, I had no idea that those long cardio sessions were doing serious damage. As it turns out, more is not better when it comes to cardio. In fact, too much of it — like too much of anything — can slowly kill you.

Here's why chronic cardio and long runs aren't so great for you in the long run, and what you should do instead if you want to be leaner and live longer:

1. Chronic cardio can be bad for the heart.

I can already hear you asking, “But I thought cardio was good for the heart?” And more is better right? Not always.

Research among people who run marathons, ultra marathons, ironman-length triathlons and participate in other endurance sports suggest chronic cardio can cause heart dysfunction, plaque buildup and stiff arteries. Another study found something similar: Just after a race, some endurance runners had troubling cardiac problems, including a weakened right ventricle. Most recovered within a week of the race, but some of these elite runners had existing heart damage despite (or, perhaps, because of) all that cardio.

What does that mean for the rest of us non-elite athletes? At the very least, it throws a serious wrench in this idea that the best exercise is both intense and sustained. A recent study suggests that slower joggers live longer than strenuous ones.

2. Chronic cardio can cause weight gain.

Chronic cardio can send your hormones into a tailspin, particularly when it comes to a cortisol. This "stress" hormone is OK in small doses, but when you have too much, it can be one of the most potent saboteurs to your health.

When you do too much cardio, your body generates soaring levels of cortisol. Producing too much instructs your brain to store fat (especially around your abdomen) and inhibits your body’s ability to process sugar. If sugar isn't processed properly, you gain weight.

So, what do you do instead?

1. Try yoga.

Yoga is a mind-body exercise that's sometimes a hard transition for cardio lovers. But it's likely worth incorporating if you're busy, have higher stress and want to transform your mindset.

It turns out that yoga practice is as good — if not better — for your health compared with other types of exercise, particularly when it comes to taking it easy on your body's stress system (ie. cortisol). Yoga has also been found to lower blood pressure, increase flexibility, decrease persistent pain and improve posture, to name a few.

2. Do your cardio in short bursts.

Not a fan of yoga or need something that's quick? Try high intensity interval training, otherwise known as HIIT. A HIIT workout is less about sustained effort and more about doing your exercise in fits and starts.

Start your workout with a 1-2 minute warmup, followed by a 30-second sprint. For me, that means an all-out run or, if I’m on a treadmill, running up an incline of about 9.5%. Follow it up with a one-minute cool-down, followed by another 30-second sprint. Do this for eight minutes, every other day and I guarantee you'll notice a change in two weeks. The other benefits? It’s something studies increasingly say is good for your heart.

Is this convincing enough to finally give up on running marathons? It was for me!

Amy Shah, M.D.

Integrative Medicine Doctor
Amy Shah, M.D. is a double board certified MD with training from Cornell, Columbia and Harvard Universities. She was named one of mindbodygreen's Top 100 Women In Wellness to Watch in 2015 and has been a guest on many national and local media shows. She helps busy people transform their health by reducing inflammation and eating more plants. As an immunologist she realizes the power of the microbiome to help digestion, natural hormone balance and food sensitivities.
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Amy Shah, M.D.

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