In her five and a half years as a cycling instructor, PT Roxie Jones taught upwards of 10 cycling classes per week (that’s more than 2,500 classes in total!). Since then, Jones has had to deal with and recover from the repercussions – including hormonal issues and sleep problems – of going overboard with this traditional form of cardio.
She has also learnt to embrace more balance in her training that nets healthier results for her… but it wasn’t easy.
Of course, the average sweat fanatic may not be pedalling vigorously on a stationary bike 10 times a week, but it’s not unusual for some women to have had a complicated relationship with cardio at some point in their lives. And while strength training has drawn more women away from the elliptical in recent years, cardio has long been at the centre of everything from national exercise recommendations to advertising.
But cardio may not need as strict a prescription or definition as we thought, or even as sizable a place in our routines. Seriously. An ever-growing body of research (and a powerful social media movement) is proving that strength training can provide the same – if not better – results and emotional perks as classic cardio.
So what cardio does need? A serious PR makeover. Ahead, why it became such a loaded topic – plus what experts recommend prioritising in your sweat regimen instead. (We see gains in your future…)
How we got here
When women began working out more in the 1970s, New York-based fitness historian Natalia Petrzela says, “There was no question that exercise was tied to a promise that you would look prettier and skinnier.” It meant that workouts were centred on cardio and torching calories (Cue the Jane Fonda aerobics videos.)
Ironically, around the same time, research identifying the benefits of weight training for women was already being published, says US exercise physiologist Stacy Sims. It didn’t go mainstream, though; the association between certain beauty standards and cardio was tight.
Those all-too-common messages about burning cals were the most powerful driver in keeping cardio the focus of women’s sweat routines for a long time, says Joy Cox, a body-justice advocate and weight-stigma researcher. What’s more, on the flip side, strength training was mainly associated with masculinity. Until the rise of boot camp classes and CrossFit in recent decades, “the predominant idea was that weight lifting would make you look like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” says Petrzela.
The Big Shift
Today, the narrative about how women’s bodies can look, feel and move has changed (it’s about time too). “The nature of social media has helped women break free from the old cardio indoctrination,” says Cox.“You see a lot of people with different experiences and different bodies doing all sorts of feats.” That visibility means more people understand that resistance exercise supports overall health better than cardio does. “Our metabolism is like a pie chart,” says Jones. The biggest slice is our basal metabolic rate (BMR), the energy we use at rest. The energy we burn during workouts is a pretty small slice, making it unrealistic to manage weight and health just by burning calories through cardio. Instead, your best bet is to increase your BMR by building muscle (which your bod burns calories while at rest to maintain), with strength training, Sims says.
Strength training is also better for stimulating your bones to help them stay strong over time, says Sohee Lee, a strength and conditioning specialist. The real kicker, though, is that strength training also has cardiovascular benefits we’ve long credited only to cardio. Women who resistance-trained had a 17 per cent lower risk for cardio disease than those who didn’t, according to research in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. It also helped ward off mental illness (and ease existing issues) in participants, a Sports Medicine analysis found.
What does all this mean for traditional steady-state cardio’s fate? Unless you genuinely like it, you shouldn’t feel obliged to step on a cardio machine. Supporting your cardiovascular health in some form is still a non-negotiable – but how you do that can vary based on your individual goals and personal preferences. If you just don’t enjoy traditional cardio, you can reap similar benefits through resistance training, Sims says. You can also opt for HIIT (high-intensity interval training) like tread sprints or power walks up big hills once or twice a week. Consider resistance training your only true must-do, she strongly stresses.
Are you in the camp that lives for endurance runs, training for marathons, or catching up on Netflix while riding the bike? Keep on keeping on. Cardio shouldn’t be some sort of enemy, says trainer Liana Tobin. Running, cycling, swimming, power walking and other forms of good ol’ aerobic exercise are loved by plenty of women, including Tobin, who finds it brings her mental clarity. And you’ll still reap the heart health and brain benefits for which research has long lauded cardio. The
TL;DR: your ideal cardio routine can be a lot less rigid than you think. “There are a million different ways to exercise,” Lee says. “Spend more time doing whatever gets you excited and makes you feel good.” We’re RSVPing yes to that empowering invitation… how about you?
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