Here's What You Really Need To Know About Your Cardio Routine

Written by Krysten Peck

Photo by Curtis Kim

By now, we’re all familiar with the health benefits of incorporating cardio into your daily or weekly fitness routines—but is it possible to do too much of it? What about the best forms of cardio? Sure, you can visit your favorite spin class or run your neighborhood trail day-in day-out, but in what ways are our routines hindering or helping our health? Sometimes it feels as though we're stuck in a fitness bubble in which highly specialized workouts and classes reign supreme, and the basic understanding and knowledge of cardio is thrown out the window.

That said, we reached out to Dennis Finkielstein M.D., a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai Beth Israel here in New York City, with the hopes of clarifying some of the confusion and misconceptions about cardio. Read on for the highlights of our conversation and maybe, a few tips on how to reconsider the role of cardio in your life.

Any movement is good movement.

The fixation on cardio as the ultimate form of exercise is valid to a certain extent—but it shouldn't undervalue other types of movement. According to Dr. Finkielstein, any exercise provides benefit for reducing a person’s chance of bad cardiovascular outcomes. "Like many things in life, balance is key. A good exercise regimen is one that balances cardiovascular fitness, strength training, and flexibility/balance." He continues, "Any exercise routine that elevated the heart rate for a sustained period of time is beneficial even if it is not 'cardio' per se." Along this note, walking is considered to be just as useful of a form of exercise when done correctly and with the proper shoes.

The cortisol-cardio connection is complicated.

There's been a significant amount of literature on the link between cortisol levels and cardio. Does cardio inhibit cortisol levels from rising? Or does it have the opposite effect? Dr. Finkielstein added his two cents on the matter, speaking to the difficulty in determining one answer. "Cardiovascular exercise and cortisol levels have a complex relationship. During cardio workouts, cortisol can rise, but people who work out regularly tend to have lower resting levels."

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Heart health is different for every individual—there's no one universal profile.

When asked whether the heart profile for someone who consistently works out differs from that of someone who keeps a more inconsistent exercise schedule, Dr. Finkielstein emphasized that near impossibility of quantifying the difference between the two. "Heart health is difficult to quantify, but in general refers to the heart’s ability to handle an increased workload demand in a non-maladaptive way—like increasing the pressure built up in the heart chambers or increasing wall stiffness."

It's OK if you miss a cardio day.

The dread of missing a workout can sometimes cause major mental setbacks that can trigger negative self-talk and, potentially, spiral into self-punishment. "Ideally one should shoot for 30 to 45 minutes five times per week or more," says Finkielstein. But if we aim for this and fall short to somewhere in the range of three to four times per week, you’re most likely in the clear.

A consistent yoga practice can help balance out the cardio.

As it turns out, you don't have to choose favorites when it comes to yoga or that HIIT class—there are benefits when done in tandem. "Yoga, when practiced regularly, has many cardiovascular benefits," Finkielstein told mbg. It increases resting metabolic state, decreases baseline cortisol, can lower blood pressure, and increases strength and flexibility.

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Pay attention to how your body responds in cardio mode.

Ever been in the middle of a workout and experienced chest discomfort or pain? Finkielstein says there’s a difference between "good" discomfort and bad discomfort. "In general, if you feel good during the workout, it would be unlikely the heart is under undue strain. However, if you feel chest pain or pressure or excessive shortness of breath, you should stop the workout and see your doctor."

Consider your fitness levels when creating a plan.

With all the options in the fitness space, it can be hard to distinguish the benefits of one workout from the other. And while Finkielstein suggests there is no one general "ideal workout," he does believe that switching moves up a bit can go a long way. "Working out four times per week or so and incorporating a mix of HIIT, resistance training, and balance and flexibility work makes the most sense. When starting out initially, it probably is reasonable to focus a bit more on cardio and lightweight resistance training until you build stamina and strength for more high-intensity workouts."

Could you imagine a future in fitness that had less cardio? Here's why we think fitness could turn toward the "lazy" route.

And are you ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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